Chen Guangcheng: “They Are Scared of the Countryside”

Ian Johnson interviews dissident Chen Guangcheng in a New York University classroom. Continuing the transcript style of his Bao Tong interview, Johnson asks Chen many probing questions, from China’s incoming leadership to grassroots political consciousness and spiritual awareness:

Ian Johnson:How do you account for Chinese officials’ frequent disregard of China’s own laws? Is it a lack of checks and balances—that officials think they can get away with anything so they do anything?

Chen Guangcheng: It’s also that they don’t dare do the right thing and don’t dare not do the wrong thing. Chinese police and prosecutors, do you think they don’t understand Chinese law? They definitely understand. But these people illegally kept me under detention. They all knew [that what they were doing was illegal] but they didn’t dare take a step to rectify the situation. They weren’t able to. Why is it like this? A Xinhua News Agency journalist came and saw me twice; as a result he lost his job. So you can see that once you enter the system, you need to become bad. If you don’t become bad, you can’t survive.

Chen also argues that some dissidents and China observers overlook urban-rural differences:

There’s nothing positive about urbanization?

I think for those who go to the city and work there’s a benefit. But the current way of villages being turned into towns—I don’t think there’s an advantage to that. People in the village often rely on ordinary kinds of labor to earn a living, like working in the fields, or raising geese or fish and things like that. So now what happens? They turn a village into one high-rise apartment building and that’s all that’s left of the village. Then the land is used for real estate projects controlled by the officials. Where are the people supposed to work? How is that supposed to function?

People abroad look at China’s human rights situation and they mainly see the situation of better-known people. But they don’t know about all the violations of ordinary people. You know my situation but you don’t know the situation of the huge number of the disabled in China, or the women who are bullied and abused, or the orphans in China. You probably don’t know much about them or just about a few of them. But this is why the officials are so afraid—because they know the true extent of the problem. They are terribly afraid of people organizing. It’s very delicate in the countryside now. This is why they constantly resort to detentions and so on. They don’t even try to find an excuse, they just do it—they are that scared.

Read more about Chen Guangcheng, who recently arrived in New York after escaping from illegal house arrest in his home village of Linyi, Shandong.