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September 21, 2017

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Blind dissident calls for 'our kind' of democracy in mainland China

Lawyers, it is often said, mostly end up burning in Hades or getting their behinds entrapped in ice in the Ninth Circle of the Inferno visualized by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and vividly described in his masterpiece "The Divine Comedy." But one is inclined to expect at least one of them, visually challenged, self-taught lawyer Chen Guangcheng, to breeze through the Pearly Gates after a long, happy and successful life in the United States, leaving St. Peter embarrassed over his past failure to speak the truth when it really mattered.

Chen, a dissident widely known in mainland China, is admired in the wider Chinese community for his moral courage. In a nutshell, he is a lawyer with a conscience, and despite his disability, he sees better than people with eyes.

As a lawyer, Chen could have lived in reasonable comfort in his own country, either by running a private practice or by joining the government bureaucracy. But he has a higher, nobler calling.

He is best known for exposing alleged abuses in official family-planning policy, often involving claims of violence and forced abortions, according to media reports.

In 2005, he became internationally known for organizing a class-action lawsuit against the city of Linyi in the east coastal province of Shandong for what was claimed to be high-handed enforcement of the one-child policy. As a result of this lawsuit, Chen was placed under house arrest from September 2005 to March 2006, with a formal arrest in June 2006. On Aug. 24, 2006, Chen was sentenced to four years and three months for causing property damage and for gathering a mob to disrupt traffic.

After serving more than four years in prison, he was briefly freed in 2010, only to be placed under house arrest at his rural home without any charges having been filed against him.

In late April 2012, Chen shocked China's authorities and created a potential diplomatic crisis by escaping and making his way to Beijing, where he took refuge in the U.S. Embassy with the help of officials there. Last month, he and his family, granted U.S. visas, flew to New York on a commercial flight.

Many people with 20-20 vision would shrink from the mere thought of escaping from their house arrest, and traveling some 230 miles to Beijing while being sought by security officers is something not even people with perfect vision are capable of. And yet Chen, who lost his vision early in life, pulled it off. On top of it all, his sheer courage is simply remarkable, to say the least.

On May 31, at a public forum hosted by New York University jurisprudence scholar Jerome A. Cohen, President Ma Ying-jeou's mentor, Chen said his "deepest concern, and a most serious issue, is that the legal system in my home country is being seriously trampled on." He said his other family members back in China were being punished after his departure from the country.

"Are there no 'transcendental principles?' Are there no laws?" Chen questioned, adding that what the Chinese authorities do are tantamount to "destroying the basic Chinese moral standards."

Chen's actions and words are a rebuff of what an influential Harvard professor purportedly believed in when he was alive.

"The Maoist revolution is on the whole the best thing that has happened to the Chinese people in many centuries," John King Fairbank was quoted as saying in 1972. "At least, most Chinese seem now to believe so, and it will be hard to prove otherwise," he added.

At the New York forum, Chen, on the other hand, called for democracy in mainland China, but not just any kind of democracy — democracy as practiced in Taiwan, which he called "our kind."

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