Chen Guangcheng Case Lurches Between Triumph, Tragedy, and
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
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 piñata for hours,
just for revealing the details of his house arrest to foreign media. What did he expect they would do when he
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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
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,
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
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:
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.