"And how did you become such a person, fighting evil and doing good?" one young man asked Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng at a New School event on Wednesday. "Was it your family background? Your education? Comic books? Something else?" Mr. Chen laughed the question off, but knowing the answer would be helpful -- the world could use more reformers like Chen.
Born into a peasant family, Mr. Chen has been blind since childhood and did not attend school until age 18, but carved out a career offering legal aid and became a well-known activist for disability rights in China. Initially paraded by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a poster-boy for social mobility, Chen fell from grace after filing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of women who had undergone forced abortions or sterilizations in the city of Linyi. He was imprisoned from 2006 to 2010 and subsequently placed under house arrest until his escape in April 2012.
Mr. Chen is often referred to in the press as a "Chinese dissident," but he does not seek the overthrow of the CCP. He rather wants to see the Party live by its own rulebook. "There are many good laws in China that are consistent with justice," said Chen on Wednesday night, "but they are often not enforced, while bad laws are enforced widely."
Forced sterilization and abortion, house arrest without charge, and arbitrary trials are all in violation of the Chinese legal code, which, according to Chen, guarantees due process and the right to integrity of person and of property. He argued that the impunity with which the CCP flouts the law has ramifications for Chinese society at large: "If the leaders act appropriately, ordinary people and party underlings wouldn't dare to break the law."
But holding the CCP accountable is near impossible: the party has no legal personality and cannot be sued by citizens. In his enlightening 2010 biography of the CCP, Australian journalist Richard McGregor refers to a report issued by the Supreme People's Court in 2009 dictating that "judges must remain loyal -- in order -- to the Party, the state, the masses and, finally, the law."
On Wednesday night, Chen urged Americans to write to their representatives and demand that the United States confront human rights abuses in China. But to many, the Chinese political context is so foreign as to render specific demands an impossibility. Others wonder what foreign governments can actually achieve in the face of China's ascendant economic might.
Indeed, addressing the Chinese college students in the audience, Chen acknowledged that "other countries can help us, but China's future depends on you, the sons and daughters of China." And yet foreign nations continue to wield substantial leverage, attracting hoards of Chinese students -- 194,000 are currently studying in the United States - and educating them in the liberal values emulated by activists such as Chen. While petitioning our representatives to insist on the rule of law in China may be futile, expressing support for the decision to assist Chen may embolden the United States' future backing of Chinese reformers.
If we believe that all states, including China, should be governed by rule of law, an informed American public is indispensable. At present, many Americans see the Chinese system as too opaque to explore. As Xu Wu wrote in 2008, the United States suffers from a "knowledge deficit" of the highest magnitude regarding China, which "carries more weight in the long-term bilateral relationships between China and the United States than the ballooning U.S. trade deficit."
A straw poll of 10 of my grad school classmates revealed no one vaguely conversant in Chinese politics. As China's influence continues to expand, this level of ignorance will become an increasing liability, limiting America's potential to effect change in China. How can we seek to effectively interact with -- let alone influence -- a system that we fail to understand?
At this stage, non-engagement is no longer an option: Chinese products and, to some extent, culture are fast spreading around the globe. Thus, improving our knowledge of the history, politics and culture of this behemoth has become not only an economic imperative -- it can't be just me who wishes I'd learned Chinese instead of German -- but a civic responsibility. If Chinese studies were better integrated into the curricula of schools and colleges in the United States and elsewhere, activists like Chen may have a better chance of garnering informed support for their campaigns.
As Chen flatly declared on Wednesday night, "When people see injustice, they should do something about it -- they shouldn't close their eyes." Let's heed the advice of the blind man and make ourselves China-literate, so that the American people can meaningfully participate in a dialogue about human rights in China.
Originally appeared in the Morningside Post