By Jackie Sheehan.

I appreciate the spirit in which Sam Beatson’s piece on the Chen Guangcheng case was offered. It nicely modelled the leaps in interpretation to which activists like Chen are subject in China – peacefully, non-violently pointing out that officials have broken the law and violated citizens’ most basic rights elided within a paragraph or two into causing ‘instability’ and ‘mass insurrections’. And China must have stability in order to reform, as we have been continually reminded since Deng Xiaoping launched the reforms in 1978.

Chen’s particular cause – at least the one which earned him imprisonment, torture, the illegal detention of his family for seven years, the cutting off of all contact with the outside world, the harassment and strip-searching of his children when they are allowed to visit, the beating and intimidation of all his would-be visitors as well as Chen and his wife, restriction of the family’s food supply, and finally the construction of a one-household prison for them – was officials’ abuse of their power in enforcing China’s family-planning policy in Linyi city, Shandong. If the people subjected to these ‘measures exceeding conventional practice’, also known simply as ‘local methods’, in Linyi in 2005 had had proper channels to seek redress, Chen need never had ‘caused a stir’ on their behalf.

But if they had petitioned the local Letters and Visits office, or tried to go to Beijing to seek a hearing with their representatives, we know exactly what would have happened to them: they would have disappeared into a ‘black jail’, one of a number of parallel penal systems still operating in China in which people are denied the rights, such as they are, available to accused persons in the formal criminal-justice system. The citizens of Linyi were not ‘rocking the boat’ by attacking CCP policy; they were objecting to illegal actions by officials, as are the many thousands involved in land-development disputes across China every year, and as long as the CCP is above the law, the system over which it presides will continue to generate ‘instability’ of this kind. The Bo Xilai case has been called the most serious crisis for the CCP leadership since 1989, and what is its cause if not the ruling party placing itself above the law?

And think what could be achieved in China if its leaders were not spending more than the country’s annual military budget on suppressing and persecuting the likes of Chen and his family. With a dozen men on the house round the clock for seven years, and more to guard the approaches to the village, beat up journalists and other visitors, and intimidate the neighbours, even though hired thugs are not expensive in China, it all mounts up over time.

Chen has apparently now been escorted by the US Ambassador from the Embassy to the Chaoyang hospital to be reunited with his family. If the Chinese government will allow them all to leave, he may find it impossible to resist accepting exile, as many activists before him have done, despite his clearly expressed wish to remain in China, living peacefully and under the protection of the law in his own country. He will be missed if he leaves, even though there are others, professional lawyers and self-taught activists like him, who will continue to push at the limits of the PRC’s legal system to try to make it a more effective guarantee of citizens’ rights. They are not the root cause of instability, but the ones trying to show the way out of it.

Jackie Sheehan is Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute and Associate Professor of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.


  1. An excellent blog, Jackie. It is always a pleasure to learn from your insights. Chinese scholar Yu Jianrong recently made very specific proposals how the new Chinese leadership can bring about long-delayed political reform. I particularly support his suggestions as regards to the building of a judicial system of checks and balances as well as his recommendations for ensuring freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Please allow me to re-post Yu Jianrong’s Ten Year Outline for Social and Political Development in China (2012-22), translated by the China Media Project (

    Ten-Year Outline for Social and Political Development in China (October 2012 to September 2022)
    Author: Yu Jianrong

    First Phase (October 2012 to December 2015)
    Achieving basic social equality and justice, with the adjustment of public welfare policies as the premise and the protection of people’s rights as the foundation.

    1. Adjustment of public welfare policies
    i. Clarifying rights to rural land, implementing the Property Law;
    ii. Adjusting basic social welfare policies (社会福利政策), extending pensions, unemployment, health insurance and such to low-income members of society;
    iii. Thoroughly reform the household registration system, instituting compulsory education (义务教育) and equality of higher-education testing across all regions without discrimination.

    2. Build a judicial system of checks and balances, establishing legal authority
    i. Detach the personnel, finances and property of inferior courts and intermediate courts from cities and counties, instituting a system of direct jurisdiction by the provinces;
    ii. Institute a system of lifetime tenure for judges with strict [stipulations on] mobility;
    iii. Institute a system of high salaries for judges, strictly following up on mishandled cases;
    iv. Abolish politics and law committees below the provincial level;
    v. Abolish the petitioning system, resolve long-standing cases through the judicial system;
    vi. Abolish the re-education through labor system, ensuring the personal rights of citizens

    3. Ensure freedom of speech and freedom of expression
    i. Achieve openness of government affairs
    ii. Make public the assets of officials and other information
    iii. Strictly prohibit incrimination through speech (因言获罪)

    4. Strengthen the building of social organizations, foster civil society development
    i. Regulate community management organizations;
    ii. Energetically develop social welfare organizations, using welfare to re-mold the humanistic spirit;
    iii. Protect social and religious organizations

    Second Phase (January 2016 to September 2022)
    Promoting the transition of the country to constitutional democracy, with political reform as the premise and civil rights as the foundation.

    1. Carry out reform of political power at the county level
    i. Open up elections for county-level people’s congresses, instituting a system in which people’s congresses are not administrative or professionalized
    ii. Reform the cross-regional system for county-level officials; [NOTE: This system, used in the Ming and Qing dynasties, means placing outsiders in local positions to prevent entrenched resistance to the center and promote the centralization of power.]
    iii. Institute differential elections for county-level positions; [NOTE: This means that the number of candidates surpasses the number of posts available.]
    iv. Transform township governments into branch organs.

    2. Open up society
    i. Establish a press law, open up the media;
    ii. Establish a Political Parties Law, open up social and political organizations.

  2. Thanks Dr Sheehan for your trackback. I am most grateful for being able to provide a field of opportunity to open up the different positions after modeling another perspective.

    Also, I’m delighted to have drawn criticism from you, Dr Fulda. It is always an honour to have attracted the feedback of such a well known researcher. It would be interesting to explore the unsoundness of the argument presented further, and as stated, wonderful to have been able to provide a platform to look at different perspectives on the issues.

    As regards the policy drawings above:
    Did he forget point one: “drop Marxism from the education system, or the following might never work?” A wonderful and noble vision, yet so difficult due to the absence of a civil society and individual rights ethos under the Marxist umbrella?

    On the positive side, I do agree that any leadership qualities in such visionaries should be fostered and supported. The larger the group of visionaries, the more powerful and the more legitimate in terms of a social democratic process under the Marxist paradigm, which is what China ought really be accountable to justly allow.

    If a “mastermind” was created from these academics and, more importantly, IMHO, lawyers (and judges), a group which was able to think-tank together, it might actually have a chance, but wouldn’t it necessarily have to oppose the CPC and thus require non-peaceful revolution in order to be properly instigated? One solution could be to have such reforms implemented on an experimental basis and for the results to be monitored in a specific area, town or province. But it hardly has the benefits of an SEZ policy, righteous though the case may be? It’s a really difficult matter to know how to implement. It would be interesting to see a blog about your current research in this area, Dr Fulda.

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