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With news reports that legal activist Chen Guangcheng has agreed to be resettled inside China with his family away from his tormenters in Shandong, to an as yet undisclosed university where he can pursue his legal studies, the United States and China probably both breathed sighs of relief.
The United States does not have to scupper its strategic dialogue with China in order to live up to its role as human rights champion and scourge of communist authoritarianism by granting asylum to Chen.
The People’s Republic of China can, however belatedly and grudgingly, have an opportunity for its Judge Bao moment: acting as the benevolent protector of deserving innocents suffering at the hands of brutal and corrupt local authorities (as that venerable jurist has done in countless books and TV serials).
But not so fast.
The sheen went off the deal with alarming speed as reporters and skeptical activists communicated with an increasingly agitated Chen in Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing. Reunited with his family, he learned from his wife of her harsh treatment in Shandong after his flight, and her desire not to stay in China. Chen is now saying he wants to come to the United States with his family, in a switch certain to embarrass and irritate the Obama administration.
Chen is receiving a sympathetic hearing, if not encouragement, from Bob Fu of China Aid. China Aid is a non-profit in Midland, Texas that lobbies for religious freedom and on behalf of Christian house churches in China. Fu has spoken proudly of his organization’s close relationship with Chen during his difficult years in China. Fu was perhaps the first person overseas that Chen contacted after his escape.
Mr. Fu would prefer that Chen Guangcheng come to the United States “for some peaceful time” instead of remaining in China, as he told the Texas Tribune well before the deal began to unravel.
Even though Chen declined the offer to come to the United States after his escape, Fu said Chen should reconsider.
“I cannot feel there is a viable option for him to continue in China given the current environment,” Fu said. “My hope is, if Chen is able to get permission from China to have his family members come to the U.S. for some time, some peaceful time, and receive some medical treatment, the U.S. can facilitate that effort.”
One hears echoes of Mr. Fu’s argument in Chen’s statement after he entered Chaoyang Hospital:
The British television program Channel 4 News also interviewed Mr. Chen, who reportedly said: “My biggest wish is to leave the country with my family and rest for a while. I haven’t had a rest day in seven years.”
The US State Department, however, is pushing back across the board at the implication that they slighted Chen’s desires and dumped him back into Chinese hands.
What started out as a muted triumph for US diplomacy may turn into an episode of unexpected and unwelcome estrangement between the US government and the human rights and democracy activists it wishes to champion, and a win for China if Chen slides uncertainly into exile and irrelevance, his heroic legacy tarnished by an embarrassing fiasco,
Meanwhile, the Chinese government is allowing Chen to have free access to the press to make a spectacle of his handwringing. Most recently, CNN:
“I would like to say to President Obama — please do everything you can to get our family out,” Chen told CNN, according to a translation of his quote. He also accused U.S. embassy officials of pushing him hard to leave on Wednesday.
“The embassy kept lobbying me to leave and promised to have people stay with me in the hospital, but this afternoon as soon as I checked into the hospital room, I noticed they were all gone.”
CNN correspondent Stan Grant said he had interviewed Chen in his Beijing hospital bed at around 3:00 am Thursday (1900 GMT Wednesday) with his wife sitting by his bedside.
While events sort themselves out in Beijing, conspiracy theorists can start their engines and explore the interesting question of how a blind man, allegedly under video surveillance and with local blocking of cell phones, was able to escape house arrest, evade dozens of goons charged with keeping him bottled up, and rendezvous with a sympathizer to drive away from the town…and have his departure not detected for several days.
Local security was pretty extensive, as Chen himself stated in his video addressed to Premier Wen Jiabao, which he recorded in Beijing after his escape. As translated by Steven Jiang of CNN:
From what I learned, other than various officials, each team guarding me has more than 20 people. They have three teams with a total of 70 to 80 people. When more netizens tried to visit me recently, they had several hundred people at one time and completely sealed off my village.
Starting with my home, they station a team inside the house and another one outside guarding the four corners. Further out, they block every road leading to my house, all the way to the village entrance. They even have 7 to 8 people guarding bridges in neighboring villages. These corrupt officials draw people from neighboring villages into this and they have cars patrolling areas within a 5-kilometer radius of my village or even further.
Besides all these layers of security around my house — I think there are 7 to 8 layers — they have also numbered all the roads leading to my village, going up to 28 with guards assigned to them daily. The whole situation is just so over the top. I understand the number of officials and policemen who participate in my persecution adds up to some 100 people.
Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, an NGO dedicated to ending forced sterilization and abortions, told Asia Times that Chen’s escape was “a miracle”. That was a characterization that China Aid was happy to echo.
Artist, dissident, and gadfly Ai Weiwei puckishly declared that Chen’s blindness was an advantage in his nighttime escape: “It’s all the same to him.” But clearly it wasn’t, at least in the matter of physical impediments like ponds and rivers.
Littlejohn told Asia Times that she learned via a Skype session with He Peirong, driver of the vehicle that spirited Chen to Beijing, just prior to her detention by public security personnel, that Chen had taken a spill in some water on his way and showed up soaking wet; news reports in Beijing reported he had also hurt his leg climbing over a wall.
These circumstances beg the question of why he did not bring his (sighted) wife and child along on the escape, especially since an activist claimed that Chen’s subsequent decision to remain inside China was dictated by the threat that his wife would be beaten to death if he tried to leave.
In a video statement Chen made before entering the embassy, he called on Premier Wen Jiabao to order an investigation of his case and the brutal circumstances of his detention, and to assure the safety of his family.
For want of more facts and a better explanation, some news outlets speculate that perhaps Chen’s escape was orchestrated or enabled by the relatively liberal faction of the CCP that is now in ascendancy with the fall of Chongqing kingpin Bo Xilai. The theory is that Chen’s escape would make security chief and one-time Bo ally Zhou Yongkang look like an idiot, thereby further weakening the hardline faction.
Perry Link, the well-known scholar of China’s democracy movement who assisted Fang Lizhi’s refuge in the US Embassy in 1989, commented to Asia Times on the questions surrounding Chen’s escape:
It’s impossible, obviously, that he did it alone. And clear that some idealistic rights-advocates helped him. The open question is whether people “inside the system” helped, and if so at what level. It seems to me plausible, as some have said, that hirelings in Shandong helped; it seems to me less plausible, but still possible–as others have speculated–that people at the top let it happen, as part of the mafia back-stabbing at that level.
The situation was apparently resolved in Beijing after four days of intense negotiations under the aegis of US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell and input from noted China lawyer and NYU law professor Jerome Cohen. The deal, by which Chen would, at his insistence, remain in China with guarantees from the Chinese and US governments for the proper and humane treatment of himself and his family, lacked the triumphalist celebration of freedom, Western values, and the human spirit that might have energized Chinese dissidents…and failed to put the United States squarely on “the right side of history,” the Chinese march to democracy that the US considers inevitable.
Jerome Cohen described it as a “middle path,” “a kind of path we are trying hard to create, a space between prison and total freedom” of the kind that Ai Weiwei currently occupies.
If the deal capsizes on Chen’s anxieties, and becomes an embarrassment for the US government and political windfall for President Obama’s Republican critics in an election year, it may be called something else: appeasement.
For its part, the Chinese government, after a complete lockdown of Internet keywords involving Chen, “blind man”, “The Shawshank Redemption” (a prison-escape drama) and “Flight 898” (the number for the United Airlines Beijing to New York flight that Chen might take into exile), handled the affair quickly and discretely.
The first official acknowledgement of Chen Guangcheng’s escape and refuge in the US Embassy came in an op-ed titled US Embassy in quandary over Chen, which was posted just after midnight on May 2 in Global Times, Xinhua’s nationalist news outlet. The op-ed was carried on its English language edition available in China, but not the Chinese-language edition.
Global Times, which had previously expressed exasperation with the prolonged and extrajudicial detention of Chen and the unfavorable international attention it provoked, deliberately shied away from any confrontation with the US government, State Department, or their human rights policies, and instead focused on a very narrow and easily finessed issue: the potential negative consequences for the United States of providing Chen—and, in the future, other dissidents—with a haven:
If petitioners’ requests are not met by domestic authorities and turn to the US embassy, this is not only embarrassing to China but also puts the US in an awkward position.
The US embassy would have no interest in turning itself into a petition office receiving Chinese complaints. It is easier just preaching universal values to the Chinese public, and occasionally, helping a few exemplary cases that best illustrate US intentions. It is never willing to involve itself in too many detailed disputes in Chinese society.
China, of course, has an ample supply of “petitioners” whose “requests are not met by domestic authorities.” The implication is that the United States has a choice: it can either repurpose its embassy as an overbooked hostel for persecuted activists, or it can engage with the Chinese government on the vital economic, diplomatic, and security issues of the day.
The next morning the Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted a statement in the form of a press conference Q&A “On the Matter of Chen Guangcheng Entering the US Embassy”, declaring that the US embassy had engaged in “activities incompatible with its function” by hosting Chen. The Chinese government demanded an apology (which US sources promptly declared was not going to happen) and the statement declared:
The Chinese side notes that the US side declares it will give weight to the Chinese side’s demands and concerns, and guarantee to take appropriate measures so that these sorts of incidents shall not be repeated again.
After the news of Chen’s departure from the embassy emerged, Global Times rubbed it in with its usual subtlety in an op-ed titled Chen and Embassy should not delude themselves.
It is hoped that the US embassy in China can distance itself from activities that do not match its functions. It should gain the favorable impression of China’s public rather than being an escape route for more extreme elements.
Whatever happens, the Chinese government will apparently achieve its desired objective: crestfallen activists will get the message that the US is not a single-minded supporter of principled dissent, and its embassy is not a reliable safe haven.
If the deal collapses, and the “middle path” endorsed by Cohen and Campbell evaporates, it will also represent a return to the familiar if not particularly productive polarities of human rights vs. authoritarianism that usually characterize US-China relations.
A relatively amicable resolution of Chen Guangcheng’s case could have been taken as an indicator of a Chinese pivot away from brutal repression that has characterized the PRC’s “weiwen” or stability maintenance regime over the last few years—and an indication of tacit US support as the CCP navigates through its leadership transition and, perhaps toward a more liberal, law-based polity.
In the early 2000s, the CCP and the PRC experimented with a migration from Party-led, purely authoritarian social control to a regime that would achieve its policy goals less directly through nominally democratic legislation applied and enforced by local governments and courts, and some monetary and administrative incentives.
Instead of a party cadre telling you what to do, in other words, you would do it yourself, having accepted and internalized the relevant laws and rules and weighed the costs and benefits.
A prime field for application of this approach was in the delicate field of family planning, the most intrusive and personal element of government control. Family planning, in the context of China’s perceived need to control its population, traditionally involved taking a number of unpopular steps from birth scheduling to sterilization and abortion that were, depending on the whim of the official involved and the eye of the beholder, either encouraged, mandatory, coerced, or forced.
Instead, new laws, applied in concert with flexible, responsible, and higher-quality reproductive services and some financial incentives, would lessen the coercive character of the system.
The new system relied on effective access to the legal system by the people from the bottom up, instead of only supervision by the Party from the top down, to detect, remedy, and deter abuses.
In Shandong, in the municipality of Linyi at least, this attempt at subtle social engineering did not go well, and that is where Chen Guangcheng came in.
Chen Guangcheng educated himself as a lawyer to help people in his community in the rural environs of Linyi obtain legal redress for local government abuses. In Linyi, abuses in the family planning system appear to have been medieval in their callous brutality.
Activist lawyer Teng Biao assisted Chen Guangcheng with his interviews and investigations in 2005. His case notes, translated and circulated by Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, provide a chilling picture of gangsterized local rule.
One case involved a 59-year old man who was taken hostage because they couldn’t find his daughter, who was targeted for sterilization:
At about six o’ clock in the afternoon [of the 19th] he was found lying by the side of
Yuncai bridge when his relatives went to the Family Planning office again to look for
him. After he regained consciousness, his relatives knew the story: “The Family Planning Officials tortured and starved him for a whole day. Then they asked him to go back to look for his daughter. He asked for food but was refused. At about four o’clock in the afternoon, a female town official (Tingju Zhang) went back with a strong smell of wine. After beating another two elderly persons (seventy years old), she took him to thecourtyard and beat his head with brooms. Three brooms were broken. Then she slapped him in the face. At about five o’ clock she pushed him into a small room. She asked him to sit on the cold cement floor and unbend his legs. She took the lead to stamp on his legs. Other officials followed her and some also slapped on his face and poured cold water on his head. He said: “I will sue you!” She shouted: “Sue me in the court if you want. It costs only ten thousand Yuan [approximately $1500] to take your life! You are the biggest trash of all the forty thousand people in Shuanghou!” He said: “I have been a Party member for over thirty years. I’m not trash!” She said: “I joined the party in 1998,but I can beat an old Party member like you!”
Sordid profit (the Family Planning Bureau was allowed, even expected to generate revenue to cover its expenses) led to the establishment of euphemistically named “Family Planning Learning Centers” where relatives of people who sought to evade sterilization or abortion were detained under miserable conditions and subjected to brutal beatings in the name of re-education reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution—and at their own expense.
Chen and Teng ran the rough numbers, and they are astounding.
On earth how many people were illegally detained in the Learning Class? According to Chen Guangcheng’s rough statistics, Linyi city has a population of 10,800,000 and 130,000 people (12‰ of the population) were forced to have ligation. Three to 30 of each victim’s relatives or neighbors were implicated. This amounts to 520,000 people if we count 4 for each victim. Everyone was detained 1 to 40 days and in total it was 1,560,000 days (about 4,300 years) if we count 3 days for each person. Each person was charged 100 Yuan each day (some places didn’t charge while some other places charged several times. But most places charged this amount of money). It amounts to more than 93,000,000 Yuan if we count 60 for each person per day. This is just a conservative estimate. But what the farmers’ hard-earned money bought was outrage, humiliation and horror.
Despite nonstop harassment and intimidation of their potential witnesses by the local authorities, Chen Guangcheng and his legal allies collected enough evidence for the National Family Planning and Population Commission to post a rebuke of abuses in Linyi on their website in August 2005, and for a handful of local officials to be disciplined.
This uplifting story of legal redress did not have a happy second act, however.
Vengeful local officials pursued Chen with trumped-up accusations of damaging property and blocking traffic, and a kangaroo court sentenced him to three and a half years in prison.
The central government did not intervene, possibly because Chen’s image had evolved beyond local barefoot lawyer to internationally recognized human rights activist. In 2006, he made the Time 100 list of most influential people in the world, making it possible for his enemies to paint him as a tool of anti-Chinese forces.
During his legal struggles, Chen had also become associated with the network of lawyers in the “weiquan” or rights-protection movement, a number of whom are evangelical Christians using the legal system to challenge the communist state’s authority and legitimacy by handling awkward, hot button cases like defense of Falungong practitioners.
In 2008, the US government-funded democracy promotion NGO, the National Endowment for Democracy, perhaps did Chen no favors by announcing he was co-winner of the 2008 Democracy Award.
The Democracy Award statuette is modeled on the Goddess of Democracy, the Statue of Liberty-inspired figure which protesting students erected in Tiananmen Square just before June 4, 1989, facing the massive portrait of Chairman Mao and brandishing its freedom torch under his nose. It is therefore a red flag (of the unfavorable, slap-in-the-face kind) to the current Chinese government, redolent, at least to the CCP leadership, of sedition, subversion, and regime change.
When Chen served his full term and emerged from prison in 2010, the local government, in what looks like a pointed repudiation of the law-based regime the central government had been attempting to promote, placed Chen under house arrest using the ancient Maoist revolutionary formulation that his relation to the polity was one of “a contradiction between the people and the enemy” (calling for the harshest measures, as opposed to “contradictions within the people,” which are to be resolved through exhaustive and uplifting jawboning).
Again, the central government did nothing, probably because it was still very much in the thrall of its Beijing Olympics-related crackdown mentality and an obsession with “social order.” Beijing outsourced repression, showering “wei wen” grants on the provinces, apparently in a no-questions-asked spirit. In Linyi, whatever monies didn’t end up in the pockets of local officials as graft funded the gargantuan security cordon of minimum-wage goons surrounding Chen’s residence.
Meanwhile, the local authorities went to town on Chen Guangcheng after he made a video detailing conditions of his house arrest, as he described in his post-escape appeal addressed to Wen Jiabao:
They broke into my house and more than a dozen men assaulted my wife. They pinned her down and wrapped her in a blanket, beating and kicking her for hours.
They also violently assaulted me. …
When they came to my house to assault us, Zhang Jian, the deputy Party secretary in charge of law enforcement in Shuanghou township, said to me unequivocally: “We don’t care about the law and we are ignoring the law — what can you do about it?” He repeated led people to my home to attack and rob us.
Li Xianli, who heads Team 1 that illegally confined me in my house, repeatedly beat my wife — once even pulling her off the bike to assault her. He also beat my mother. Simply monstrous. Li Xianqiang, an official with the township’s judicial authority, beat my wife last year, gravely injuring her left arm.
News of the over-the-top supervision, harassment, and beatings spread throughout the world and Chen’s situation evolved into a public relations nightmare. Affairs reached their ludicrous apotheosis when actor Christian Bale and a CNN crew drove eight hours to Linyi to visit Chen in December 2011, only to be driven off a pack of local goons.
Then came the great escape.
If the deal holds—indeed if the PRC does not gleefully usher Chen out of China over his well-advertised flip-flopping in order to highlight American humiliation–a low-key resolution of the Chen Guangcheng affair could bring a temporary relaxation of the tensions between the United States and China.
However, even if Chen Guangcheng remains in China, resolutely maintains his appointed role as “legal activist” and steers clear of “anti-government dissident”, the CCP may find its enthusiasm for legal accountability limited—and the impulse to harass and intimidate his associates and sympathizers irresistible.
The Obama administration has shown a tendency to publicly extend the hand of conciliation—in this case, probably quite welcome to the new generation of Chinese leaders looking for political and diplomatic breathing space as they grind through their transition—but quickly switch to a resentful shove when affairs don’t evolve as it thinks they should.
With US-China relations hardening into a zero sum configuration, the United States will probably discover ample cause and opportunity to challenge the PRC on human rights in the future.
A bigger risk for China, however, is perhaps the problem Chen Guangcheng is already working on: family planning.
Despite the leveling-off of Chinese population growth and calls to relax the one-child policy, China’s demographic boffins have decided to retain family planning at least through 2020.
The policy appears to have a certain eugenic tinge to it. Urban families are reproducing at below the replacement rate of 1.5 (Shanghai is at a rock-bottom 0.7 ratio); meanwhile, rural families are pressing to have more children, especially sons, and are also feeding the migrant population—which accounts for 25% of women of childbearing age and remains largely beyond the reach of the family planning system. Rural families are disproportionate targets of family planning policies, and are disproportionately likely to suffer abuse at the hands of undertrained, underpaid, callous, and unaccountable local officials.
If the horrors of Linyi are repeated and multiplied nationwide and China’s peasants acquire a unifying sense of grievance and demand for redress, the PRC may have more to worry about than the legal activism of Chen Guangcheng.
PETER LEE has spent thirty years observing, analyzing, and writing on international affairs. Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this column ran on Asia Times.