Image by Jocelyn Baun. China, 2011.

With increasing economic and social development comes an increasing awareness of basic human rights. China’s Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident and self-taught lawyer, has successfully highlighted the Chinese government’s lack of vision in responding to human rights grievances. Zhang Zhiru is another self-taught Chinese lawyer, but with a much lower profile. And as Pulitzer Center grantee Adam Matthews explains in The Globe and Mail of Toronto, Zhang prefers to keep it that way.

Zhang is one of a growing number of so-called “barefoot lawyers” who have quietly set up shop in major industrial centers to represent workers who are routinely cheated out of pay or suffer the consequences of toiling for long hours in hazardous or unhealthy work places. Zhang charges no fee for his service, and what he does is legal “only as long as the authorities say it is.”

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Pulitzer Center grantee Tim Rogers, writing in Time, reports that “Nicaragua takes great pride in claiming to be ‘the safest country in Central America.’ Nicaraguan military and police leaders insist they've created a ‘firewall’ against the western hemisphere's more than $40 billion drug trade and the ultra-violent narco-gangs pushing in from both the north and the south.” But cracks are starting to appear in that firewall. The recent arrest of a senior magistrate on charges of providing the cartels with fake IDs, laundering money and helping them smuggle drugs is “the first serious indication of narco-infiltration in the upper echelons of Nicaragua's central government.”

Human rights and labor exploitation in China, drug-related corruption in Central America—these may seem like distant and disconnected concerns to many Americans but, of course, they really aren’t. The factories where Zhang’s clients work are crucial cogs in production of the cheap consumer goods we love. The violence now lapping up at Nicaragua’s shores is fueled by our appetite for illegal drugs. Here at the Pulitzer Center we see these stories as essential to an enlightened understanding of the global community in which we live.

Until next week,

Tom Hundley
Senior Editor