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Chinese rule-of-law activist becomes a case in point

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A blind "barefoot lawyer" has infuriated half the officials in Shandong Province with a case that highlights many of China's unfinished civil reforms: humane treatment, due process, and rule of law.

For Chen Guangcheng – who has been under siege and arrest for a year – the problem is that he is that case.

Just two years ago, Mr. Chen was a flamboyant local hero and self-taught legal eagle who used the legal system to shut down a paper factory that was poisoning the water supply. His wedding was televised locally.

Yet in 2005, his legal zeal began to get him in trouble. Chen's crusade to halt the forced detention and sterilization of women in order to meet local quotas – a practice that has largely stopped in most of China – did not go over well in Linyi, where bonds are tight between officials, police, and hired thugs, much like the rural segregated US South of 50 years ago.

Chen has lived under house arrest for a year, unable to talk to the outside world, his lawyers and friends beaten and in jail facing dubious charges of disturbing public order.

"This is justice in the Chinese countryside, not like Zhang Yimou's candied film version," says Jerome Cohen of New York University, who is assisting Chen. "There are no kind, avuncular public security officers or judges to mete out justice. They can instead be found surrounding his house. No local lawyer has been willing to help, and Beijing lawyers who have sought to defend Chen have been repeatedly beaten."

Chen's challenge to country justice makes him a kind of Rosa Parks of China. His standoff with Linyi authorities and Mayor Li Qun, who served briefly as assistant to the mayor of New Haven Conn., has captured the imagination of legal reformers here and top foreign legal eagles – raising the question of whether law in China is a tool for control or is evolving into a system to adjudicate justice. One question is: Will he go free?

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