Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Syrian Regime Change and the Kurdish Problem

If Assad loses control of his armed forces and the regime loses its legitimacy as the expression of Syrian nationalism, the ingredients don’t seem there for a Lebanon-style civil war with local proxies armed by regional or global actors.

That’s because I don’t think that Russia, China, or even Iran see any upside in arming some Ba’ath regime generals of primarily Alawite backgrounds trying to beat back an insurrection powered largely by Syria’s dominant Sunni majority.

Alawites are estimated at 12% of Syria’s largely Sunni population and don’t look to do well if the Syrian uprising transforms into an explicitly sectarian confrontation.

Lebanon, on the other hand, is split between Christians, Sunnis, and Shi’ites with no one group holding a clear demographic advantage (especially since there hasn’t been an official census in Lebanon for decades), providing multiple opportunities for regional and global patrons to make mischief through their durable local proxies.

If regime collapse occurs in Syria, a disorganized triumph by various armed Sunni Arab groups, some with a significant Islamist tinge, and a messy clean-up operation by the West, Turkey, and the Gulf States appears to be in the offing.

I don’t think anybody is terribly interested in that kind of outcome.

The whole Sunni-Shi’a/spillover into Lebanon scenario is bandied about a lot, but I think the ghost at the regime change banquet, as it were, is not another round of misery for little Lebanon; it is the prospect of more Kurd-related heartburn for rising regional power Turkey.

A sign of Turkish sensitivities is this banned map showing the distribution of ethnic Kurdish populations across northeastern Syria, eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, and parts of Iran. 

As a disgruntled content screener/whistleblower revealed , this map is banned on Facebook in Turkey (together with “blatant (obvious) depiction of camel toes and moose knuckles”):

As the Syrian conflict has militarized and the armed opposition has acquired a Sunni sectarian tinge accentuated by its Gulf backing, Syrian Kurds (who make up perhaps 9% of the population) have for the most part sat on the fence.  

The Syrian National Council, a bastion of Arab chauvinism thanks to its domination by the Muslim Brotherhood (Kurds are of Iranian, not Arab ethnicity) has put down its marker:

Samir Nashar, now a member of the seven person General Secretariat of the SNC was even more explicit, in August 2011 saying “We accuse the Kurdish parties of not effectively participating in the Syrian revolution.  It seems that these parties continue to bet on a dialogue with the regime. This stance will certainly have consequences after the fall of the regime.

As the struggle has militarized, Kurds probably find even less reasons for reassurance.  The anti-government armed groups competing for Gulf emirate support have displayed a certain Arab Islamist fervor admixed with the anti-Iranian xenophobia that is de rigeur these days.

If a Sunni majority regime takes power in Damascus, it will probably find itself wrangling with its Kurdish population, with the possibility that the struggles of energized and/or threatened Syrian Kurds will find an echo in eastern Turkey.

It would appear that Turkey’s reluctance to push forward with overthrowing the Assad regime and midwifing the creation of a friendly new Syrian government reflects its concern that a pickup in Damascus will be offset by headaches in Kurdistan.


Sorting Out the Houla Massacre

Juan Cole jumped the gun a bit by attributing the hundred+ deaths in the Syrian town of Houla to a Syrian Army artillery assault.

In a perverse way, a massacre by the Syrian military would have been almost a stabilizing phenomenon.

It would have placed the bad-guy hat firmly and irrevocably on the heads of the Syrian armed forces.
It would also have served as an affirmation that the Assad regime is in complete command of the security forces and responsible for the atrocities committed against Syrian civilians.

And it would have given Dr. Cole added ammunition to argue for a new humanitarian intervention in Syria against the convenient and vulnerable target of the Assad regime, one that might banish the embarrassing memory of the last intervention he promoted: the fiasco in Libya.

Instead, the Syrian conflict appears to be spiraling out of control, with Syrian army military commanders either turning a blind eye to, condoning, or supporting the activities of local death squads.

The picture, murky as it is, of the atrocity at Houla is of a fierce battle between government and insurrectionary forces in Houla, followed perhaps by a tactical withdrawal by the rebels.  Then some combination of soldiers and pro-government irregulars moved in for a massacre that might have been local score-settling for the assassination of a pro-government informer in a nearby village, a horrific warning to Syrian soldiers who defect (Houla was reportedly a refuge for many defectors and their families), or a brutal escalation in COIN-style terror.

In any case, the people who perpetrated the atrocity apparently knew who they were looking for, if a persuasive account in the Guardian is accurate:

"They came in armoured vehicles and there were some tanks," said the boy. "They shot five bullets through the door of our house. They said they wanted Aref and Shawki, my father and my brother. They then asked about my uncle, Abu Haidar. They also knew his name."

From the point of view of the Assad regime, credible accusations that its military, security personnel, and irregulars are operating death squads shred its rather threadbare claim to the role of protector of Syria’s citizens against terrorists.

As Patrick Cockburn points out in a lengthy piece in Counterpunch, the Annan peace process was something of a lifeline for Assad. The regime has demonstrated considerably more forbearance than the rebels, who would prefer to see the peace process collapse, and had little to gain and much to lose from the carnival of massacre in Houla.

From the point of view of Assad’s patrons in Russia and China, Houla hints that Assad is losing control of the military and security apparatus, casting severe doubts on his abilities to manage a political transition for Syria.

Reporting from Damascus, Cockburn wrote:

The government in Damascus yesterday appeared to be somewhat leaderless and seemed slow to take on board the impact of an outrage in which people across the world are blaming the Syrian authorities for the murder and mutilation of children. “I get the impression that there is nobody in firm control of Syrian policy and the Syrian armed forces,” said a diplomat yesterday.

Therefore, Russia and China have both been prompt to call for an investigation of the massacre at Houla.  

Possible but unlikely outcomes are that Houla turns out to have been some hideous false flag operation, or some local freelance murder spree. 

If, on the other hand, evidence shows that the official security and military apparatus, presumably at a local or regional level, orchestrated the operation, I expect that Beijing and Moscow will be very interested to see if Assad can enforce accountability and demonstrate, to the satisfaction of Russia and the PRC if not the international community, that he can punish and reassign the commanders and security chiefs responsible for dealing the Annan plan so conspicuous a setback.

If Assad can’t do it, it is possible that Russia, which is reportedly impatient for a change at the top in Syria, will probably find somebody who can.

It does not appear that Russia or China (or, for that matter, Iran) are interested in backing proxies in a sectarian civil war in Syria.  They will support the Annan plan and the political process as long as they see a chance for a successor regime to claim, even in some diminished way, the mantle of Syrian national legitimacy.  

If the government becomes irrevocably identified with death squads as well as the well-known brutality of its military and security apparatus, Beijing and Moscow will probably throw in their losing hand.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Syria: Is this country headed straight to hell or what?

Back in February I wrote for Asia Times about the Chinese diplomatic initiative on Syria, which is now largely represented by the Annan peace plan.  At the time, I wrote China’s plan had a chance, albeit slim, because, for all the brave talk emanating from the Gulf, Turkey, the EU, and the West nobody seemed particularly eager to step up and destroy the Assad regime.

Simply imploding the Assad regime to spite Iran would appear to be easy, but has not happened.

Turkey is already providing safe havens for the Free Syrian Army, but apparently has not unleashed it. Western Iraq is aboil with doctrinaire Sunni militants happy to stick it to the Alawite regime, and Qatar has allegedly already laid the groundwork for underemployed Libyan militants to find profitable occupation fighting alongside the opposition in Syria, but utter bloody chaos has yet to erupt.

The fact that Aleppo and Damascus have only been ravaged by two car bombs is perhaps a sign of Wahabbist restraint, and may have been taken by the PRC as a sign that the Gulf Cooperation Council's commitment to overthrowing Assad is not absolute.

Of course, recently Damascus was ravaged by two 1000 kg car bombs and a similar attack in Aleppo was averted by Syrian government security.

And today there was this in the Washington Post:

Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States, according to opposition activists and U.S. and foreign officials.
Material is being stockpiled in Damascus, in Idlib near the Turkish border and in Zabadani on the Lebanese border. Opposition activists who two months ago said the rebels were running out of ammunition said this week that the flow of weapons — most still bought on the black market in neighboring countries or from elements of the Syrian military — has significantly increased after a decision by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other gulf states to provide millions of dollars in funding each month.

Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood also said it has opened its own supply channel to the rebels, using resources from wealthy private individuals and money from gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, said Mulham al-Drobi, a member of the Brotherhood’s executive committee.

The new supplies reversed months of setbacks for the rebels that forced them to withdraw from their stronghold in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs and many other areas in Idlib and elsewhere.

“Large shipments have got through,” another opposition figure said. “Some areas are loaded with weapons.”

The effect of the new arms appeared evident in Monday’s clash between opposition and government forces over control of the rebel-held city of Rastan, near Homs. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebel forces who overran a government base had killed 23 Syrian soldiers

Helluva way to run a cease-fire.

The simplest explanation is that the United States and the Gulf nations have decided to drive a stake into the heart of the shaky ceasefire and let ‘er rip in Syria, consequences be damned.

This would fit in with the near-universal desire to get rid of Assad, while having the collateral benefit of administering a ostentatious public rebuke to China’s efforts to drive the Middle Eastern political process in ways that don’t suit the United States and Saudi Arabia.

That’s the most likely explanation.

However, the Obama administration’s queasiness concerning uncontrolled regime collapse in Syria driven by hardened Islamist fighters and the Muslim Brotherhood instead of cuddly, pro-Western liberal intellectuals seems to have become more overt since the car bombings in Damascus.

So I wonder if this article is something in the nature of a push by Saudi Arabia to reinforce the narrative of inevitable Syrian Armageddon fueled by aid from the Gulf, and thereby encourage the Obama administration to give up on the peace process, indeed any ideas of a managed process, and let the insurrection take its course…and of course, take on the responsibility for dealing with Syria, or what’s left of it, once Assad is gone.

To me, the takeaway paragraphs were:

Officials in the region said that Turkey’s main concern is where the United States stands, and whether it and others will support armed protection for a safe zone along the border or back other options that have been discussed.
The Sunni-led gulf states, which would see the fall of Assad as a blow against Shiite Iran, would welcome such assistance, but they would like a more formal approach. One gulf official described the Obama administration’s gradual evolution from an initial refusal to consider any action outside the political realm to a current position falling “between ‘here’s what we need to do’ and ‘we’re doing it.’”
“Various people are hoping that the U.S. will step up its efforts to undermine or confront the Syrian regime,” the gulf official said. “We want them to get rid” of Assad.

Not exactly a profile in courage by the counter-revolutionary kings, sheiks, and emirs of the Arabian peninsula.  

I’m pretty sure that the Gulf states could bring down Assad by themselves, albeit through proxies, at the cost of a few million dollars.  

So the issue here is mainly of GCC gutlessness and an attempt to get America on the hook for dealing with the Syria mess once Assad is in exile in Russia, hanging from a lamp post or whatever.

The bottom line is, the future of Syria—at least how its political process and insurrection play out over the next few months—is in the hands of President Obama.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Cheng Chengguang, WTF?

Chen Guangcheng Case Lurches Between Triumph, Tragedy, and Fiasco

My recent piece for Asia Times is somewhat more topical than usual, so I’m shooting it out as an e-mail to China Matters readers.

Looking at today’s shenanigans, and Chen’s metamorphosis from brave legal activist to handwringing exile in waiting, I have the distinct impression that people invested in the current freedom fighter vs. tyrant polarity prevailed on Chen to blow this deal up.

Think about it.  If the deal went through and Chen was studying law in Tianjin under the ostentatiously solicitous care of the PRC, what happens to other dissidents who might want asylum?
US Embassy picks up the phone, confirms that Chen is hitting the books and putting on weight, and tells the dissident, no asylum but how about a deal like Chen’s?

I find Chen’s explanation of why he reneged on the deal somewhat unconvincing.

As to his rather belated concern over his wife’s well-being, Chen had already revealed in his video address to Wen Jiabao that local goons in Shandong had rolled his wife in a quilt and used her as a piƱata for hours, just for revealing the details of his house arrest to foreign media.  What did he expect they would do when he actually escaped?

The escape itself, is of course a riddle wrapped inside an enigma.  Part of the Chen legend was the intense, up-close surveillance he had to endure.  How did he really evade it?  Was there a deal?  Did that deal blow up too?

Anyway, Chen and his minders have burned their bridges to the Obama administration.  They are already reaching out to the Congress as an alternative to the State Department.  Maybe his brain trust has decided to throw its lot in with the Republican anti-Communists instead of Democratic human rights neo-liberalists.  That might make for some less-than-convivial times if Chen gets that ride on Hillary Clinton’s plane that he’s abjectly begging for.

Here’s the text of my Asia Times piece, which appeared under the title:

If 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 Harvard 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 ChenGuangcheng 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 deludethemselves.

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 announcinghe 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.