Chen Kegui Trial Shows China Still Has Major Human Rights Issues

On Friday, Chen Kegui, the 33 year-old nephew of Chinese dissident and human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, was sentenced to three years in prison. Chen Kegui was accused of stabbing a government official who, along with a group of men, broke into his home in April to search for the missing lawyer. His conviction was delivered in a courtroom in Shandong Province after a swift trial which did not allow any defense witnesses. The defendant's father, who was not allowed in the courtroom, said, “My son is innocent. Three years and three months is too heavy for him. This is the revenge of the government on Chen Guangcheng .... Chen Kegui has replaced Chen Guangcheng to serve this sentence.”

Now a scholar at New York University, Chen Guangcheng is continuing his advocacy work, and does not seem deterred by the Chinese government's actions toward his extended family and fellow Chinese activists. In a video commemorating the upcoming Human Rights Day on December 10, Chen Guangcheng admonishes the Chinese government for its violations and reminds Chinese leader Xi Jinping that the "whole nation is watching [him]." He also urges the people of China not to "expect some good emperor to bestow the right upon us, [or] some upright officials to defend our rights."


Although Tibetan self-immolations and forced abortions have occupied the Chinese human rights spotlight in Western media, an issue that is more widespread across the general Chinese population has failed to garner similar attention. The recent sentencing of 10 people to jail for abducting petitioners and illegally detaining them has once again brought the problem of the "black jails" to the forefront of the Chinese public. 

The "black jails" (pronounced heijianyu) are extralegal detention centers used to imprison people who go to the State Bureau for Letters and Visits (guojia xinfang ju) in Beijing to register complaints against perceived injustices committed by their local officials. These centers may be located in hotels, hospitals, or government offices, and are often established by private security companies who, in turn, are paid by local governments. Top officials have denied the existence of these jails.

Despite the perceived lack of civic participation, many Chinese often engage in petitioning (xinfang) because it gives normal citizens who cannot afford to go through the formal legal system a chance to redress their grievances by appealing to officials or politicians in the central government. Since the last decade, the number of petitions actually exceeded the number of legal cases. However, filing a petition amounts to little more than blowing off steam because the bureau receives more than 10 million complaints annually and is unable to peruse all of the cases. In a recent Chinese survey, less than 0.2% of petitioners said they had their complaints addressed. Regardless of its effectiveness, petitioning occupies a unique place in Chinese society and warrants further exploration.

If U.S. advocacy for human rights is to be truly impactful, then the gap in understanding between the United States and China must be acknowledged for dialogue to proceed. What Americans view as promoting fundamental values to all individuals, the Chinese view as unwelcome intervention laden with hidden political intention. Popular Chinese sentiment is that the United States is trying to maintain its preeminent global position rather than promote universal justice by staining the reputation of the Communist Party. Even though many citizens realize the corruption that abounds in their local and central government, they would rather be the agents of change when the time comes rather than have foreign elements instigate a revolution. This mentality partially stems from the cultural memory of humiliation at the hands of Western imperialism in the 19 century. Therefore, adamantly pushing for human rights without sensitive understanding of the domestic situation may not only antagonize the Communist government, but the majority of Chinese citizens as well.

However, a nascent change in China's political consciousness is conducive to the crusade for human rights. Forbes’ Ralph Benko writes, "To achieve [human rights advocates'] goal requires setting up structures to support systemic (rather than impulsive) evolution of democratic principles, respect for human rights, and the honoring of the great historic spiritual values of China."

This means that those who want human rights to be immediately granted have not heeded societal development in Chinese history. Up until 1978, almost all Chinese people lived in an agrarian society which had experienced 5,000 years of countless power transitions and authoritarian governments. Before Hu Jintao stepped down from the top leadership position in November, former leader Jiang Zemin held on to his top military position even after his relinquishment of civilian authority. Hu Jintao's decision to voluntarily pass his commander-in-chief military powers to Xi signified the first "clean transfer of power" in the CCP in two decades. Benko notes that this "act of remarkable humility bears a striking similarity to that of George Washington's stepping down, after two terms, from a presidency he could have held for life." There is certainly a gradual shift in the CCP towards a more empathetic style of governance, especially since rapid economic development and its attendant corruption is contributing to great social unrest. With the more charismatic and affable Xi taking over, there is a possibility of genuine progress concerning human rights, but whether such development can be achieved within the next decade remains to be seen.

If the U.S. is generally concerned for international human rights and not simply using the issue as an indirect castigation of the Chinese government for purely political reasons, then it must try to salve Chinese perceptions of the U.S. as a threat in Asia.  In this rapidly changing bilateral relationship, regardless of what the U.S. or China wants, both sides should be more transparent in their maneuvers in order to build strategic trust. More importantly, each side should place themselves in the shoes of the other to see that what it deems to be justified or ethical may be viewed by its counterpart as a veil for dangerous ulterior motives.