Chen Guangcheng: Activists, Ambassadors, Cartoonists & Congressmen

Activist Chen Guangcheng and his family remain under house arrest in southern Shandong province, and a stream of supporters continue efforts to gain access to them. As Chen’s birthday (this Saturday, November 12th) approaches, some supporters have planned flashmobs to mark the occasion, but authorities appear to be taking heightened precautions, with regular visitor He Peirong reportedly under “semi house arrest” in Nanjing.

Reuters reported last week that, faced with intransigent officials and empty guarantees of safe passage in Linyi, some of Chen’s would-be visitors have taken their complaints to Beijing:

Some of the supporters were beaten by dozens of men in plain clothes while trying to visit Chen on Sunday, and their complaints were later ignored by the local police, said Mao Hengfeng, a petitioner from Shanghai.

She said the petitioners then went to Beijing’s Ministry of Public Security, but it was not clear whether officials accepted their petition expressing concerns about Chen’s treatment.

“We were roughed up and pushed around, and some of us were hurt, but the police didn’t lift a finger and ignored our complaints,” Mao told Reuters about the weekend incident in Linyi.

“Now we want the Ministry of Public Security to do something about Linyi — it’s a place without any law or rights.”

But Jerome Cohen, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed based on his Nov. 1 testimony to the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, wrote that the image of the Linyi government as a rogue, independent actor is a misconception. While limited aspects of the story may indeed be cases of local-vs-national government, he argues, the situation as a whole is part of a broader program in which Beijing is entirely complicit.

There are three myths about Mr. Chen’s plight that must be dispelled. One is that such cases of persecution and abuse of lawyers and legal activists are rare in China, and only occur when a few heroic dissidents openly invoke the law to confront injustice rather than rely less confrontational methods ….

A second myth is that Mr. Chen’s recent suffering is merely another example of local government run amok, neither approved nor condoned by the central government. Many attacks on lawyers are indeed local in origin, and Mr. Chen’s case started out that way in 2005 when local authorities first sent thugs to illegally confine him and his family at home. However, the case soon came to the attention of national leaders. After representatives of the Ministry of Public Security reportedly met with local officials to discuss the situation, the authorities launched a criminal prosecution against Mr. Chen, a more conventional type of repression.

A third myth is that there must be some purported legal justification for the suffering that the Chen household has endured since his release from prison last year. Governments, even the Chinese government, normally like to maintain some veneer of plausible legitimacy for their misconduct, however thin it might be. Yet no such justification has come to my knowledge in this case, which seems to have exceeded the bounds of police ingenuity.

See also Andy Yee’s post on Chen’s house arrest as a facet of China’s stability maintenance machinery at Global Voices Online, a slightly different adaptation of Cohen’s testimony at The New York Review of Books, and Human Rights in China Executive Director Sharon Hom’s testimony to the same Congressional-Executive Commission:

It is important to note that Chen Guangcheng’s situation reflects the fate of countless other human rights defenders in China subject to extra-legal measures, including being restrained under constant surveillance within closed premises – in their homes, temporary residences such as boarding houses or hotels (also known as “black jails”), or other undisclosed locations – where they are not permitted to leave. As distinguished from formal sentences of imprisonment, in which authorities officially charge and detain individuals pursuant to cited criminal laws and procedures, Chinese government officials have articulated no specific legal basis for these detentions. As a result, extra-judicially detained rights defenders are left entirely outside the protection of the law, without any recourse to procedures to challenge their detention, under circumstances that could permit serious rights violations – including the use of torture or other ill-treatment.

The commission’s chairman, Representative Chris Smith, announced his intention to visit Chen if possible, and to pursue other avenues if not. From the AFP:

“Enough is enough. The cruelty and extreme violence against Chen and his family brings dishonor to the government of China and must end,” said Representative Chris Smith, chairman of the Congressional Executive Commission on China.

Smith, a Republican from New Jersey who is active on human rights issues, said he would shortly ask China to allow a US congressional delegation to travel to Chen’s village of Dongshigu in eastern Shandong province.

“I am trying to put together a trip to go there and go to his house. We’re already checking flights,” Smith told AFP after the hearing, saying that the lawmakers “desperately hope” that Chen is still alive.

Even if China does not allow the trip, Smith said that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or the US ambassador to China, Gary Locke, should raise the case at the highest levels.

Locke told GlobalPost last Friday that he had actually already expressed his concerns:

“We are very concerned about his treatment and, for instance, the reports his daughter was not allowed to go to school. Although he’s been freed, he is still under severe restrictions on his movements,” Locke told GlobalPost in a private interview Friday. He said the Chinese government has not yet responded to the letter he sent in September ….

Since Locke sent the letter, Chen’s 6-year-old daughter has been allowed to leave her home to attend school, under guard.

The ambassador, who arrived in Beijing in August, added his voice to the chorus calling for China to ease its extreme treatment of the self-taught lawyer, who is known for exposing forced abortions in his hometown in Shandong province.

A new report from the Committee to Support Chinese Lawyers, ‘Legal Advocacy and the 2011 Crackdown in China: Adversity, Repression, and Resilience‘ (PDF) describes earlier interference with efforts to help Chen (pp. 9-10):

On February 16, 2011, a group of activists and lawyers gathered over lunch to strategize about how to come to the aid of Chen Guangcheng, a blind, self-taught legal activist facing an extraordinary level of government abuse. A week earlier, on February 9, Chen and his wife Yuan Weijing publicly released a series of videos describing the 24-hour surveillance and house imprisonment he and his family had been subjected to since his release from prison on September 9, 2010. There was absolutely no legal basis for these measures or the ongoing deprivation of liberty of Chen and his family. The following day, Chen and his wife were beaten in their home in retribution for releasing the videos online. (For more details on Chen’s case, see Box B. [p. 23])

Authorities barred seven individuals from leaving their homes to attend the February 16 meeting, including Li Xiongbing, Li Heping, and Xu Zhiyong, three lawyers whom authorities would proceed to illegally detain at various times in the following months. Another person prevented from attending the meeting, Internet activist and rights defender Wang Lihong, was detained sometime before March 26 and has since been convicted for “assembling a crowd to disturb social order” and sentenced to nine months imprisonment. The February 16 meeting mirrored other gatherings held during the period of Chen’s pre-trial detention in 2006, making Chen’s case notable because it inspired lawyers, human rights defenders, and activists to coalesce as a community in his support.

Enforced disappearance is defined under international law as the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty of a person either by state agents or with official support, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the detention or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person. Chinese authorities proceeded to employ this illegal measure against many of the lawyers who managed to attend the meeting. Police seized lawyers Jiang Tianyong and Tang Jitian that afternoon. Tang was disappeared for three weeks, while Jiang was interrogated and beaten before being released in the evening, only to be disappeared for 2 months from February 19 to April 19. Beijing-based rights lawyer and university lecturer Teng Biao was disappeared for 69 days between February 19 and April 29.

The Economist cited Chen’s would-be visitors as a key demonstration of the Internet’s potential for coordinating activism in China:

The use of the internet to mobilise people to visit Mr Chen has rattled officials far beyond Shandong province. It is the first time in China that activists have made such a persistent effort to show up in solidarity with someone under house arrest. It also coincides with attempts to use weibo, or microblogs, to gain support for independent candidates in elections to low-level “people’s congresses” that have been taking place around the country. Though the congresses have little power, and it is very difficult for truly independent candidates to stand, the polls still make the Communist Party nervous.

Activists know they have little chance of meeting Mr Chen, whose house is floodlit at night and cut off from mobile-phone networks. But there have been numerous quixotic forays. On October 14th a number of disabled men and women from neighbouring Anhui province were turned away. On October 30th, says Human Rights in China, an NGO based in New York, a group of 37 people who made the attempt to get through was attacked by around 100 thugs.

The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon sees Chen’s predicament as akin to the death of Yueyue and the authorities’ pursuit of Ai Weiwei in reflecting an underbelly sometimes concealed by the bright plumage of China’s economic hi-scores and scientific leaps.

His neighbours stand aside and let it happen. “These people must have known Chen Guangcheng. They might have even been his student, friends, or relatives. But in this place, at this time, no one cared about what was happening to him. These villagers treated him as if he were a stranger, or an enemy. All these villagers had gotten together to gang up against one blind man,” writer Murong Xuecun wondered after he and four friends were roughed up and prevented from seeing Mr. Chen ….

The Communist Party’s supporters will say that dissidents like Mr. Ai and Mr. Chen don’t matter in the big scheme of things. The argument goes that the persecution of these few is a small price to pay for ensuring the stability that allows the People’s Republic to get wealthier, to build a space program, and to experiment – a little – with civil society.

Reading that half of the headlines, it’s hard to argue that progress isn’t being made. But as little Yueyue’s case illustrated so vividly, the costs of that stability – the institutionalized injustice and indifference – are still being tallied.

Italy’s Post Internazionale has interviewed “Crazy Crab”, the cartoonist behind ‘Hexie Farm‘ (which was included in CDT’s recent list of search terms blocked on Sina Weibo) and the ‘Dark Glasses. Portrait‘ project in support of Chen Guangcheng:

The CCP has a long history of using art as a powerful propaganda tool. However, artists can also use art to protest against the one party dictatorship and censorship. If an art work shocks the audience, give them a new perspective and let them think in a different way, then it can help to change the system gradually …. One month ago, I started ‘Dark glasses. Portrait’ campaign to support a blind lawyer, Mr. Chen Guangcheng, who is under house arrest in a village. I received hundreds of photos from unknown people already. Reading their emails I can feel their fear, even from people who are thousands kilometers away from China (in Europe or the US ). But the more I read from participants’ words is still courage and strength.

See more on the Crazy Crab interview via CDT.

Meanwhile, in the Relativity Media Linyi film shoot subplot, Relativity CEO Ryan Kavanaugh was due to appear at the Asia Society’s US-China Film Summit in Los Angeles last Tuesday. He cancelled at the last minute, however, possibly calculating that continued celebration of his firm’s valuable business relationships in China might be derailed by awkward questions about his partners’ other activities. The Washington Post, though, talked to a Linyi official whose enthusiasm for the city’s cinematic prospects remained undented:

In a telephone interview, Su Guiyou, director of the Linyi Propaganda Department’s Culture Industry Office, said that the district hoped to become a center for movie-making and that the American comedy “will be a good chance to publicize Linyi and will help make Linyi famous not only in China, but also the world.” The Hollywood team, he said, filmed for four days last week and shot a “dream scene” in a local quarry.

Asked about Chen and complaints about his treatment, Su said he had never heard of the activist and hung up.