Chen Guangcheng: “Free Citizen”, Uncertain Future

Hu Jia, an activist who was detained for over 24 hours after meeting with the escaped Chen Guangcheng last week, has said that police admitted during his questioning that Chen and his supporters had done nothing wrong in the course of his flight to Beijing. From Gillian Wong at the Associated Press:

“They are all free citizens,” Hu quoted the police officers as saying. “For them to come to Beijing and so on, there is nothing illegal about it. They are free to do so. They did not do anything wrong, they have no legal trouble. We just want to understand the situation and verify it ….”

The police acknowledgment is an indication that Chen’s troubles with the authorities have primarily been about revenge by local leaders, who had seemed especially bitter and personal in their mistreatment of Chen ….

But the central government has never shown much inclination to stop the authorities in Shandong province’s Linyi city, which oversees Chen’s village of Dongshigu. The Chinese government has a long history of ignoring its own laws.

Guo Yushan, another activist involved in Chen’s escape, told The Wall Street Journal that “they asked every question they could about Chen Guangcheng and wanted every detail about his escape” during the 50 hours he was detained in Beijing, and that his interrogation was “civilised”. (Guo has since been ordered not to talk to foreign media.) Of those detained outside Linyi, He Peirong—profiled by Oiwan Lam at Global Voices—remains missing after being taken from her home in Nanjing on Friday.

In Linyi’s Dongshigu village, meanwhile, the substantial security machinery assembled to guard Chen has been at work rounding up members of his family instead. From Tania Branigan at The Guardian:

On Monday, the European Union urged China to avoid harassing the activist’s family and associates. But many are already in the hands of furious officials; Chen Kegui fled after lashing out with a knife at men who had broken into his home and detained his father. Shortly afterwards, two police officers marched his mother away from the hospital where she was caring for his sick child. Chen Kegui’s wife is now too frightened to reveal her location.

“She’s afraid she will be next and the whole family will be taken away. She’s terrified,” said lawyer Liu Weiguo, whom she hired before she left.

Liu, possibly under pressure from the authorities, recruited a band of other lawyers who have volunteered to aid Chen Kegui. From David Pierson at The Los Angeles Times:

“Shandong policemen are famous for violating the law,” said Liang Xiaojun, one of the volunteers and a regular defender of activists. “I don’t know if Keguis rights will be protected, which is why we’re getting together. We are concerned about the case and we want to help. We’re hoping we can create enough publicity to pressure the relevant parties.”

Another volunteer lawyer, Teng Biao, said Chen Kegui’s whereabouts are still unknown. It is also unclear whether he was in the hands of police or local thugs (human rights activists argue that there’s often not much difference).

Despite his own reported wishes and the alleged acknowledgement of his innocence, it may be impossible for Chen to remain in China. From Josh Chin at The Wall Street Journal:

In fleeing and seeking U.S. protection, analysts say, Mr. Chen has elevated his case, taking what had been home confinement of Mr. Chen under local authorities and turning it into a national issue, which makes it more difficult to find a resolution that lets him remain in China—something activists say he prefers to safe passage out of the country.

“What he’s done almost ensures that he has to leave,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, a human-rights researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, noting that Beijing is unlikely to want to keep around such a high-profile critic of the country’s legal system. “It would be very difficult to imagine any other end game to this ….”

U.S.-based activist Bob Fu on Monday raised the possibility that the U.S. and China would come to a “face-saving” arrangement that would allow Mr. Chen and his family to travel to the U.S., not as asylum seekers, but under the pretext of seeking medical attention. Mr. Fu is the founder of Christian human rights group China Aid, which he says facilitated Mr. Chen’s escape.

(Fu, who says he learned of Chen’s escape three days before the guards themselves and has been a major conduit of information since the news went public, is also the subject of an article at MSNBC, which calls him “God’s double agent“.)

Kellie Currie, a fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, suggested a possible compromise to The Diplomat’s Jason Miks:

“One possible face-saving solution for everyone would be for Beijing to allow him and his family to lawfully immigrate to Hong Kong. He would arguably be much safer there, away from the reach of the horrible Linyi officials who have been tormenting his family, and would be able to attend law school, have access to international media, diplomats, etc., while technically remaining on Chinese soil and able to continue his work in support of the rule of law in China.

“If Chen would agree to this, it would probably be the best possible outcome for all the parties involved.”

If not, exile to the US would at least avoid what the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Lieberthal described to NPR as “the worst possible outcome“: for Chen to remain trapped in the US embassy in Beijing for months or years, with his presence there “a long-term major irritant in our bilateral relationship”. This prospect echoes the 13 months that physicist Fang Lizhi—who died last month—spent with his wife Li Shuxian in a windowless embassy basement following the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. At The New York Review of Books, Perry Link recalled his own part in Fang’s “temporary refuge”:

The eventual solution of the Fang case was to negotiate Fang’s and Li’s exile: As Fang later wrote in The New York Review, Deng Xiaoping’s key demand in the negotiations was that the US lift its economic sanctions on China—a condition the US was unwilling to meet. But in June 1990, the Japanese government promised to resume loan programs to China, and with that Deng agreed to release Fang and Li as part of the package. The Chinese government demanded in addition that Fang agree to “no anti-China activity” after his release. Fang accepted this demand, but repeatedly made it clear that to criticize China’s ruling regime was hardly “anti-China.” He persisted with his criticisms, which he saw as supportive of China.

Today, for Chen Guangcheng, the two governments might agree that exile is the least awkward solution from their points of view, but Chen may not accept it. Chinese dissidents have learned over the past two decades that exile leads to a sharp decline in a person’s ability to make a difference inside China. Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who is now in his third year of an eleven-year prison sentence for “subversion,” made it clear after his arrest that he would not accept exile as an alternative to prison. From what friends of Chen in Beijing have been saying in recent days, it seems that Chen is taking a similar position.

Link gave further details of Fang and Li’s stay at the embassy to The Guardian’s Tania Branigan:

“It had comfortable furniture and food and so on, but in terms of personal freedom it was no better than a prison.

“Their son Fang Zhe went in with them, but about four days later left because he couldn’t stand it.”

In an essay, Fang, who died last month, wrote: “All the windows were nailed shut by planks and it was isolated from outside. The garbage would be put into the medical briefcase and carried out by the resident doctor for processing. The food was purchased by the nurse.”

Regardless of Chen’s eventual destination, the irritant factor looks set to persist through this week’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue, for which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Treasury counterpart Timothy Geithner have travelled to Beijing. From NPR:

This time around, human rights issues will certainly “interfere” with Clinton’s agenda. And they should, says Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican of New Jersey.

“My hope is that this week will be a game-changer for the administration, which has been very weak and enabling of the Chinese dictatorship,” Smith says. “You know, hope springs eternal — this is the week to make a difference and be very strong with Chen Guangcheng ….”

The Obama administration has raised concerns about Chen’s harsh treatment under house arrest in the past. Administration officials wouldn’t comment Monday directly on Chen’s case. Clinton would only say she’s working on — as she puts it — a “constructive relationship” with China.

One former senior diplomat defended the lack of specific comment, telling Reuters that “the quieter we are officially, the better the outcome likely will be“. But both Clinton and Obama have stressed that human rights have a central place in their negotiations with China. From Reuters, via The Guardian:

Global Times took a moment to enjoy the Americans’ dilemma, and the fact that Chen is now at least partly someone else’s problem.

In the Western media, Chen is a hot potato for Chinese authorities. Now he is making Washington uncomfortable. Chen, unlike other dissidents who made abstract human rights goals in China, has many detailed complaints about the country’s grass-roots governance. He travelled to the US embassy from Linyi, Shandong, and now these problems have entered the US sphere of import.

All countries are plagued by various public complaints. Chinese petitioners are motivated by various incentives. 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.

The editorial is an exceptional break in the blanket of silence thrown over China’s official and, as far as possible, social media. From China Media Project, on Saturday:

CMP was able to find no coverage of Chen Guangcheng whatsoever in traditional media, and so far (as of 6pm today) there has been no official word from official outlets like Xinhua News Agency.

Following a flurry of discussion of Chen Guangcheng on Chinese social media Friday, we see far more robust controls today. Nearly all possible searches have been blocked, and even the Chinese word for “blind person”, or mang’ren (盲人) — Chen Guangcheng lost his sight during his early childhood — turns up the familiar warning that: “According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, these search results cannot be shown ….”

But we did happen across this post by Chinese professor Zhu Dake (朱大可), who wrote cryptically:

[The Story of the Mole] Once upon a time there was a mole who was surrounded by a pack of wolves, but with the help of some mice he managed to escape. The wolves were furious. The mole’s older and younger brothers, his mother and his baby still lived in the burrow. They became the hostages of the wolves. The escaped mole hid in the forest and called out to the lion, but the lion could not hear his fragile voice. The mice in the walls and the mice in the field all passed along the welcome news, but they couldn’t decide whether the [mole's] escape was a victory, or whether it was just the beginning of more hardship.

Moles, wolves and lions are now all on a list of censored terms compiled by the AP: see also two recent instalments of CDT’s own Sensitive Words series. Other entries include “Blind Man”, “A Bing” (a blind musician), “Shawshank Redemption”, and many other code words pressed into service by netizens trying to stay ahead of the censors. Others have joined foreign supporters on Twitter, from where Al Jazeera’s The Stream compiled a roundup of reactions and rumours.

At NPR, Louisa Lim contrasted the attempted blackout with authorities’ approach to the recent Bo Xilai scandal(s), on which speculation was allowed to run relatively wild.

But in the case of Chen, the escaped lawyer, the strategy has been completely different. The censorship machine has tried to deny his existence rather than allow his demonization. That could be because sensitive negotiations with the U.S. about his fate are ongoing.

Charlie Custer of the translation website ChinaGeeks.org says another factor could be that his case is more potent.

“The whole Bo Xilai thing is sort of like watching an opera or watching a movie. It’s very entertaining and very interesting, but it doesn’t cause the average person to think, ‘Wow, that could happen to me,’ ” Custer says. “Chen Guangcheng comes from a rural, poor background, so he strikes a chord with a lot of people. Then seeing his family — these people who are completely innocent of anything — be arrested and held without trial or charges, that does resonate with a lot of people.”

See also ‘Activist’s Escape Tests Chinese & US Governments‘ at CDT, on the political implications of Chen’s escape within China and across the Pacific; Steven Colbert’s account of the episode, in which he comments that “apparently losing your sight doesn’t just make your ears better: it makes your balls bigger”; and an English-subtitled version of Chen’s video message.