On Friday afternoon, Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese civil rights activist, shared his personal experiences in the Chinese legal system as a self-taught lawyer.

At a panel sponsored by the China Law Center, Chen and two other panelists — New York University Law School professor Jerome A. Cohen ’51 LAW ’55, who is a co-director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute, and New York University Law School professor Ira Belkin, the executive director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute — discussed different aspects of the criminal justice system in China as well as structural and systematic difficulties within it. Chen said the greatest threat to the well-being of China’s legal system is that the Communist Party of China is above the law.

“The laws are always guided by party policies,” Chen said. “That’s the fundamental reality of how the law system actually works in China today and the biggest barrier to the law system from improving.”

Chen, who had been arrested several times and successfully escaped house arrest last April, said that when evaluating criminal justice in China, instead of looking at specific regulations and codes, one must view the legal system as a whole. In China, he said, the written laws may already be comprehensive and well-phrased, but the will of the party sits above any legal framework.

He said he was illegally detained by the Party Committee of his village in Shandong province for advocating the rights of the underrepresented in rural China, adding that no single law in China allows you to indict a Party Committee.

After the village Party Committee discovered his escape from house arrest, he said, the party vice secretary took “gangsters” to his brother’s home and started beating him, his wife and son with clubs, smashing all possessions and robbing all valuables. Chen’s brother was detained on no legal basis, while the thugs continued beating his sister-in-law and his nephew, Chen added. His nephew, beaten half to death, grabbed a knife and attempted to resist the gangsters without seriously wounding anyone — a few days later, though, his nephew was accused of malicious injury, he said. Chen’s nephew was later sentenced to three years and three months in prison without proper legal procedure, while those who attacked him faced no charges.

“The party can get away with crimes of breaking and entering, robbery and beating people up, while the person who resists all of this becomes the criminal,” Chen said.

Chen also offered several examples of extrajudicial behavior that he had personally encountered. When a citizen files a case, the court must respond within seven days with a written report of acceptance or reason for refusal according to the Chinese criminal procedure — but, in reality, the person who the case is against can use connections within the legal system to ensure the lower court does not accept the case or does not grant a written refusal. Without a written refusal, Chen said, a Chinese citizen cannot appeal to a higher-level court.

Ivy Wang ’06 LAW ’13 said she found Chen incredibly inspiring because of his dedication to serving those without legal representation.

“This talk really is a rare opportunity in the perspective it takes on China,” she said. “With so many people on campus who think about China only in a systematic, large way, about China’s rise and so on, we often lose sight of those in China who don’t have as much of a voice, those whom Chen represents.”

Shunan Liang SOM ’14, who is originally from Sichuan, China, said he believed the panel helped him understand Chen better as a person — “he’s not really as barefoot as we thought him to be.”

Since escaping, Chen has been studying at New York University Law School and living in New York City with his wife and children.