By Calum MacLeod
BEIJING – Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who has made it to the USA after taking refuge last month inside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, called on people worldwide to "fight against injustice."
Back in China, where the ruling Communist Party controls all judges, prosecutors and police and harasses lawyers who take on cases it dislikes, joining that fight will be a tough proposition.
Human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who was beaten by police when he tried to visit Chen in a Beijing hospital this month, said Sunday that the Communist Party is making it difficult to speak one's mind.
"It's a great pity that such a person cannot be allowed to live freely in China today," he said.
Chen arrived in New York City on Saturday to study law in a deal brokered by the United States.
For China's small, hard-pressed band of rights defenders left behind, including lawyers such as Jiang and self-taught, grass-roots activists like Chen, "the situation is worse now than when Chen was jailed" in 2006, Jiang said.
Chen was imprisoned for four years for speaking out about forced abortions and then was kept a virtual prisoner in his home upon his release. He escaped April 22 and spent six days in the U.S. Embassy.
"It's very hard to protect rights these days," said Li Baiguang, a lawyer. "China has excellent laws and policies, but local officials don't implement them. They are like an independent kingdom."
Nevertheless, many activists and ordinary citizens continue to seek justice. After a year trying to expose a Communist Party leader in Beijing for corruption, including embezzling funds meant for the disabled, villager Cheng Xueping got her breakthrough in March. A local court ordered an audit of the financial affairs of Shangwan village chief Yang Guohua.
The next month, Yang took her revenge, Cheng said. At 2 a.m. on April 25, a demolition squad climbed into Cheng's courtyard home, broke down the door and forced her and her daughter to leave before having bulldozers destroy their home. Today, just a few bricks remain.
"At the top level (of government) they just talk about fighting corruption, and at the lower level, they don't implement those policies," complained Cheng, 58. "How can society be harmonious when officials behave like this?" she asked, referring to the "harmony" goal of Chinese President Hu Jintao.
The court-mandated audit never happened, said lawyer Li, who is helping Cheng, while a Beijing court this month refused to accept her lawsuit for illegal demolition. Her husband and son, who run the family's dressmaking factory, have urged Cheng to end her fight because of the risk of physical harm.
"I am worried about my mother, but I support her," said daughter Chen Ya, 17. "This is the only path we can take."
Cheng also took up the cause of Tang Jinlong, a partially sighted man whose wife and son have mental disabilities, after he received just a fraction of promised government funds to repair his run-down home.
"I feel bad, very uncomfortable that Cheng suffered reprisals because of helping me," said Tang, his hands and clothes blackened from his coal-processing job where he earns $12 a day. "But by now we can't retreat. The people responsible must be punished."
Yang Guohua, the former Shangwan village accountant and both chief and secretary of its party branch, denied embezzling government funds for disabled villagers. She said she had never heard of the Fangshan district court decision to audit her, though USA TODAY saw a copy of the verdict.
"I am not corrupt," Yang said Sunday.
In the South China village of Wukan in Guangdong province, villagers have won headlines for their defiant, and unusually successful, stand against corrupt officials and police.
However, Dongguan village in central Henan province is more representative of who prevails in such struggles.
"Most villagers are very angry at Chen Zhiqiang, because he's so corrupt," said He Guoqiang, 60, of the party chief whom villagers allege paid bribes in March to secure his election as a local "people's deputy." Such a post can help conceal his personal profits from selling expropriated village land, He said. Chen did not return calls seeking comment.
The odds are stacked against the Dongguan villagers, said lawyer Xi Qingchao of the WhoHow law firm in Zhengzhou, the Henan provincial capital. There is little recourse in Chinese law to overturn election results.
Yet Xi is encouraged by growing rights awareness among China's public.
"Many people suffer rights infringement but don't dare to do anything, as ordinary people lack the idea of rule of law," rights lawyer Li Baiguang said. "They only become conscious of their rights from cases like this. If there are a few in each village, then there could be a little hope for China's civil society."
Contributing: Sunny Yang