Chen Guangcheng’s Supporters Face Reprisals

While Chen Guangcheng remains under guard in Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital, awaiting permission to travel with his family to the United States, a broad range of reprisals have been visited upon his family and supporters elsewhere. Chinese Human Rights Defenders has catalogued detentions, house arrests, violence, denial of medical treatment, cancellation of passports, threats and warnings; other reports include the threatened or actual revocation of lawyers’ licenses and the suspension of microblog accounts.

Perhaps the most immediately urgent situation is that of Chen’s nephew. Chen Kegui is now being held on charges of attempted murder after he took a kitchen cleaver to guards breaking into his father’s house in the middle of the night.

Chen [Guangcheng], who is now receiving treatment in a Beijing hospital and preparing to go to the United States to study, said his nephew was a scapegoat of officials angered by Chen’s audacious escape and demands that they be investigated.

Asked why police in his home province of Shandong in east China would arrest his nephew, Chen said, “Revenge.”

“I think this is revenge gone wild, and it’s their final battle,” he told Reuters by telephone from the Beijing hospital where he is being kept ….

“They beat him savagely,” Chen said of his nephew. “He was beaten so badly that his face was covered in blood. I heard he was beaten so badly that three hours later his face was still bleeding,” Chen said,

The Washington Post’s Keith Richburg reported a tense atmosphere around Chen’s home village of Dongshigu:

“I don’t dare go over there,” one woman said, pointing across the cornfields toward the bridge that separates her village from Chen’s. “They don’t have guns, they use sticks. If you look like an outsider, like you’re not from the village, they beat you ….”

Interviews conducted in Xishigu, the nearby village, revealed a climate of fear. “We’re all scared,” said one young man, a farmer in his mid-30s with a young daughter. “They might come and arrest us.”

A 56-year-old man who gave his surname as Wang said Chen’s many relatives in the area are all under strict watch, including those not under house arrest. “Even if his family members are allowed to go out, they are followed by those thugs,” the man said.

Reprisals have not been restricted to Dongshigu and its immediate surroundings. Richburg described being chased from the village by vehicles bearing license plates from elsewhere in Shandong province (and one with no plates at all), while other incidents have taken place still further afield: David Bandurski at China Media Project reported a number of apparently related weibo account suspensions while, according to Reuters, one lawyer who had volunteered to represent Chen Kegui had his license suspended in Guangdong:

Chen Wuquan, a lawyer based in the southern province of Guangdong, told Reuters the Guangzhou Lawyers’ Association had confiscated his license “temporarily” last week during a standard annual renewal. The lawyer Chen is not related to the Chen family from Shandong.

The association told him it could not renew his license because it had to deal with a complaint about an article he had written about the Chinese legal system.

“It must be related (to the nephew’s case),” Chen Wuquan said. “Because this kind of complaint should be processed quickly. It’s not possible that they would have to confiscate my license and not allow me to handle new cases.”

Despite this, Chen Guangcheng himself has continued to draw a line between the actions of the local and central governments. Some of the detentions elsewhere in China do appear to have been much much less harsh than those in Dongshigu: escape participant He Peirong, for example, described her interrogators as “very polite”, and said that they watched the prison break film ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ together. In contrast with his warnings of local authorities’ “crazed” vengeance, and despite a lack of evident progress in his application for travel documents and permission, Chen told Voice of America that he was “very happy” with the central government’s handling of the case. He had faith, he said, in their assurances of an investigation into the local authorities’ actions.

“To the Chinese government, I am very happy with the cool-headedness and restraint with which they’ve handled this case,” he said. “I hope the Chinese government, especially the central government, can continue to take steps towards further emancipating their minds, deepen reforms, and better address social injustices ….”

The activist told VOA he last spoke with Chinese authorities on Monday, and that they reaffirmed a pledge to investigate what he called the “illegal happenings” in Shandong.

“The important thing is that they will handle the case publically according to Chinese law – they expressed this very clearly. But they haven’t clearly said when this will begin,” he said.

Whether Chen’s professed faith in the central government is sincere or simply pragmatic, it gives Beijing room to co-operate without appearing to capitulate. The theme of officials abusing power behind a benevolent emperor’s back is traditional; it is found, for example, in the 14th Century classic The Water Margin, whose later chapters describe the outlaws’ amnesty and subsequent adventures as the emperor’s loyal soldiers. But The Economist dismisses this scheme as a poor reflection of the current reality:

Like many Chinese, Mr Chen portrays his own struggle as part of a wider gulf between an overwhelmed central government and maverick local authorities. After his escape, in a videotaped message, he implored the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, to investigate abuses in Linyi. Speaking from his hospital bed in Beijing, where he is recuperating from a broken foot suffered during his escape, Mr Chen says: “It is clear that the central government needs to turn over the Shandong soil in which the crimes of local officials have grown.” It is a modern rendering of an ancient countryside lament: “If only the emperor knew…”

But the emperor does know, and the emperor rewards. Although there has been an expansion of social and economic freedoms in many areas, under the Communist Party’s system of cadre evaluations, local officials are graded on the basis of a series of internal targets that have little to do with the rule of law. The targets are meant for internal use, but local governments have sometimes published them on websites, and foreign scholars have also seen copies. The most important measures are maintaining social stability, achieving economic growth and, in many areas, enforcing population controls. Cadres sign contracts that spell out their responsibilities. Failure to meet targets can end a cadre’s career. Fulfilling them, even if it means trampling laws to do so, can mean career advancement and financial bonuses.

At China Real Time Report, Russell Leigh Moses puts a similar point in a somewhat more optimistic context:

It would be wrong to think that Chen’s case is another example of local authorities getting away with bad behavior while the central government stayed ignorant. That’s as much a canard as the belief that Beijing’s refusal to lock Chen up represents a sudden concern about China’s image overseas. Chinese officials are aware that their reputation is under the microscope again; but most are far more concerned with being seen as hanging tough than they are with being generous. In this and so many other issues, the Party line remains the hardline ….

But there’s another scenario: There are cadres who might think that Chen Guangcheng has a point, and that the continuing harassment of him and his family are reckless acts by a Party that should know better. These officials might not agree with all of Chen’s opposition, but his complaints about cadres running amok surely resonate with those in the Party who continue to be anxious about what they perceive to be the stalled state of reform ….

Chen Guangcheng is yet another cautionary tale in the run-up to the leadership handover here later this year. The decision on his fate will not change China, but it promises to provide another clue as to where some want the Party to go.