Chen Guangcheng’s Former Prison Evaporates

The village of Dongshigu, where Chen Guangcheng and his family were held under illegal house arrest, became infamous for its elaborate system of walls, guards, floodlights and cameras designed to keep Chen in and visitors out. This security apparatus gathered substantial economic momentum, one probably reason why it outlived his incarceration; it was reported to remain in place as recently as last week, over a month after the activist’s escape, complete with a guard post disguised as a watermelon stand on the road to the village.

Last weekend, overnight, the security presence vanished. From Didi Tang at the Associated Press:

So thorough was the cleanup this past weekend that locals said the surveillance cameras trained on Chen home had been removed and the high voltage street lamps dimmed. Two adjoining huts built at the village’s entrance to house the guards — and where outsiders trying to visit Chen had been beaten — had been torn down. Even the trash they piled up had been taken away.

“It was as if the whole thing evaporated,” said Chen’s older brother, Chen Guangfu, who lives in the village with several others in the Chen family. “I feel liberated.”

[…] Rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, a friend of Chen Guangcheng, said local authorities likely got rid of the surveillance to destroy evidence ahead of a promised investigation by the central government.

“If Beijing wants to go through the motion, it can do so” with the absence of evidence, Jiang said. “But if Beijing wants a real investigation, it can still do so because there are plenty of witnesses.”

Such an investigation is one of two urgent remaining tasks in Chen’s case, argues Ng Tze-wei at the South China Morning Post.

[…] The second is guaranteeing the fair handling of the prosecution of Chen Kegui, the activist’s nephew, who was arrested and charged with “killing with intent” after he waved a knife and injured three officers who barged into his house on April 26 in Linyi, Shandong, after his uncle’s escape came to light.

Beijing lawyer Ding Xikui said the last time Chen Kegui’s wife heard from him was via text message in the early hours of April 27, when he asked her to help him hire a lawyer. But when Ding and another renowned defence lawyer from Shanghai, Si Weijiang, tried to approach the police bureau in charge of the case, they were told that Chen Kegui had already requested legal aid counsel, so neither Ding nor Si could see him.

Assigning government-friendly lawyers in sensitive cases has become a common tactic for mainland authorities in recent years – even though it is against the spirit of the law, as it strips the defendant of the right to select a lawyer.

In this case, the appointment of a legal aid lawyer is particularly ridiculous because legal aid exists to protect of the rights of defendants who cannot afford a lawyer. It should be granted only when a defendant can’t afford a lawyer, rather than be used as an excuse to prevent a defendant hiring a lawyer of his choice.

While the grip on Dongshigu may finally have relaxed, politics and money continue to drive the expansion of extra-legal security operations against “perceived troublemakers” elsewhere. From Charles Hutzler at the Associated Press:

While China has long been a police state, controls on these non-offenders mark a new expansion of police resources at a time the authoritarian leadership is consumed with keeping its hold over a fast-changing society.

“Social activists that no one has ever heard of have 10 people watching them,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “The task is to identify and nip in the bud any destabilizing factors for the regime.”

Mostly unknown outside their communities, the activists are a growing portion of what’s called the “targeted population” — a group that also includes criminal suspects and anyone deemed a threat. They are singled out for overwhelming surveillance and by one rights group’s count amount to an estimated one in every 1,000 Chinese — or well over a million.