The case of Chen Guangcheng, the blind human rights advocate, is creating a dual dilemma – for China’s ruling Communist party and the US government.
The barefoot lawyer’s escape from house arrest and his move to seek refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing “came at an excruciatingly awkward time for the Chinese leadership as it struggles to preserve a cohesive front after the spectacular dismissal of Bo Xilai, a member of China’s Politburo,” notes one observer.
Chinese censors today blocked web searches of a range of terms related to his escape, from his name and ‘blind person’ to The Shawshank Redemption (right), the celebrated prison-break film.
The case threatens to aggravate ideological cleavages within the ruling party, according to China analysts.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of political science at Hong Kong University, said reformers are on the offensive, which might ease the search for a solution to Chen’s case. But he warned that the authorities are risk-averse and will not gamble with anything that might disrupt the transition of power.
“Chen Guangcheng’s flight occurs at a very delicate moment not only because of the Bo Xilai crisis but also the upcoming 18th party congress and more importantly because the party leadership is obviously divided about many substantive economic and political issues,” said Cabestan. “In the post-Arab spring, Bo Xilai crisis, not only Zhou Yongkang but the whole leadership have become more risk-adverse than ever: they are very much aware of the domino effect of Chen Guangcheng’s release.”
The case “poses an immediate quandary for Premier Wen Jiabao, who has repeatedly advocated strengthening the rule of law and making this authoritarian Communist regime more accountable to the people,” The Washington Post’s Keith B. Richburg reports.
But it also presents Washington with a policy conundrum in the run-up to this week’s Strategic Dialogue with Beijing.
“This is as near as there has been to a perfect storm in US-China relations since 1989,” said Christopher Johnson, a former China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, referring to the Tiananmen Square massacre. “It is a very messy situation.”
Chen’s fate is likely to be settled before the annual summit begins on Thursday, said Bob Fu of the Texas-based rights group ChinaAid.
“The Chinese top leaders are deliberating a decision to be made very soon, maybe in the next 24 to 48 hours,” Fu said, citing a source close to the U.S. and Chinese governments. Both sides are “eager to solve this issue,” said Fu, a former tutor at a Communist Party academy in Beijing.
“It really depends on China’s willingness to facilitate Chen’s exit,” he said.
The case “poses a quandary for the leadership,” representing a blow to security-oriented officials, writes Jane Perlez at the New York Times.
“Moreover, the case could easily become a weapon in the already complex factional battles,” reports suggest. “Some analysts say that proponents of political reform, including Premier Wen Jiabao, could use Mr Chen’s escape to blame Zhou Yongkang, the top security official and a leading conservative, for bungling the case and shaming China.”
With the political standing of the state security apparatus controlled by Zhou Yongkang, a key ally of Bo Xilai, weakened by Bo’s demise and the 69-year old Zhou due to retire at the upcoming congress, party modernizers have an unprecedented opportunity to press their case for reform.
“There are growing numbers of people who feel China has made scant progress on the rule of law in recent years. These cases have stimulated discussion on the need for political/legal reforms. Coupled with the leadership transition, they may turn out to be the pivotal cases but it’s still too early to tell. The party’s instinct is to retain control,” said Dali Yang, professor of political science at the University of Chicago.
The status quo is unsustainable, says a party sympathizer and former adviser to Mao Zedong in the 1940s.
“This should be a pivotal point in the struggle between Chinese reformers and anti-reform vested interests. Chen Guangcheng is not an anti-Communist dissident,” said Sidney Rittenberg. “I see it as a struggle between those who want rule of law and those who are content with China’s feudal tradition in which local authorities can defy the country’s laws and the central authority allows this, as long as it doesn’t threaten their rule.”
While the case could bolster reformists’ case for rule of law, it could have the opposite effect and reinforce nationalist elements.
“The flip-side is that some people will argue that the US is trying to take advantage of a delicate political situation in China,” said Johnson, now at the Center for International Studies in Washington.
The case “could redound to the benefit of hard-liners, who may see his escape as part of a conspiracy to embarrass China that involves the United States,” Perlez cautions.
The incident will further strain US-China relations, observers suggest.
“Many observers are drawing another analogy,” The Economist notes, “not to Wang Lijun but to the case of Fang Lizhi, the Chinese physicist who took refuge in the American embassy after the killings near Tiananmen Square in 1989. Mr Fang, who died this month, was holed up in the embassy, unable to leave China for America, for more than a year.”
“Chen is often described as a “dissident,” but that is a misnomer,” he notes:
Despite years of brutal treatment for seeking to bring attention to those victimized by China’s “one-child” policy, he has never established a political party or organization. He has never advocated overthrowing the Communist Party. In the video he posted online after his escape, he says that the injustices his family experienced “hurt the image of our Party.” And the first thing he told me after escaping was that he wanted the outside the world to know that he was not going to leave China but to “fight to the end for the freedom of my family. .?.?. I want to live a normal life as a Chinese citizen with my family.”
Fu called on Beijing to respond to Chen’s video requests. “They could make an example of his case to promote the rule of law,” he told Radio Free Asia. “But exile would be an option if the Chinese government decided to take a very extreme approach to Chen and his family.”
Chen’s dramatic escape has also “cast a spotlight on the Chinese government’s growing use of unlawful home detentions, disappearances, ‘black jails,’ and other, often brutal, extra-judicial methods to try to silence its internal critics and stamp out dissent,” reports suggest.
Although Chen has appealed to Beijing to investigate local officials’ abuses, he was placed under extrajudicial house arrest upon his release from prison in 2010 at the behest of central leaders, say observers and rights activists:
Political and legal analysts dismiss the notion that Mr Chen is a victim of local brutality. “His case was handled at the top,” says one. “Initially, having him convicted was seen as a way of legalizing the crackdown on him. Then, after his jail sentence, the central government decided that he had to be shut up at all cost.”
“The state security bureau told the Linyi authorities that they had to neutralize Chen but not re-arrest him lest it create more international outcry,” according to Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch, who said the authorities were increasingly using illegal measures because the old methods of information management have been incapacitated by the spread of microblogs.
“The security apparatus is not able to control and prevent critics and dissidents the way it was before. To make up for this erosion of social control, increasingly unlawful methods are being deployed against activists, including disappearance and torture, so as to silence them and intimidate others,” he said.
Rights activists are expressing concern for the relatives and supporters of Chen, a recipient in absentia of the National Endowment for Democracy‘s 2008 Democracy Award, following a police crackdown on his family and associates.
“Stability is most important in this crucial year ahead of the 18th party congress [which is to determine the next leadership],” said a provincial party official.
The party leadership is fearful that China’s growing rights consciousness, emerging in large part as a result of rights advocates like Chen, may morph into politically threatening social unrest.
“Chen Guangcheng played a central role in accelerating the [rise of] rights lawyers in China,” said Bequelin, China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Therefore the Chinese government is looking at a much bigger issue than embarrassment: It is sitting on top of a volcano of social unrest which would become even more dangerous if Chen Guangcheng is freed up to continue campaigning.”
Chen’s pioneering role is one reason why his house arrest prompted such an ‘extraordinary’ campaign by Chinese rights and civil society groups. His exceptional biography is another:
Born in 1971 in the eastern Chinese village of Dongshigu, Mr Chen went blind as a result of a fever before he was a year old. Growing up in the countryside during Mao Zedong’s final years in power would have been difficult anyway, but the loss of his eyesight robbed Mr Chen of even the modest opportunities others had to get an education. He did not get the chance to start primary school until he was 18.
“He incarnates everything that is wrong with China – the fallacy of the rule of law and the legality promise, the corruption and abuse of power, the discrimination of the handicapped,” says Bequelin.
Other pro-democracy and rights activists have been subjected to extra-judicial arrest and detention, most notably Liu Xia, the wife of imprisoned 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo; dissident artist Ai Weiwei, and the prominent human rights lawyer and activist Gao Zhisheng.
Yet Chen’s case “is really the most visceral example of the lack of rule of law in China and the really out-of-control abuses of the security agencies,” said Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Chen Guangcheng’s case is going to definitely reveal the reality of Wen Jiabao and his longtime advocacy for protection of the poor, the marginalized and the abused, and the application of the rule of law.”
As the Bo scandal has unfolded, China’s state-run media have repeatedly picked up Wen’s mantra, eager to show that Bo was not the subject of a political purge or personal vendetta. The Chongqing case showed that China was developing into a country where the law was paramount, according to the official refrain, and even a powerful figure such as Bo was subject to it.
“The rule of law is the foundation of the governance of the CPC and critical for realizing long-term stability,” the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s main mouthpiece, wrote in a widely-circulated editorial. “Anyone who breaks the law shall be convicted and punished.”
“It’s a recognition that to compete in the modern world, there needs to be a rules-based foundation,” says Michael Posner, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor “I think there’s a demand internally, from the Chinese people. The government is undoubtedly hearing that and responding to it.”
“In the long term, I feel a sense of optimism that the trend globally .?.?. for a law-based, rights-based structure is going to prevail here as well,” Posner said.
As China Digital Times notes, The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos believes Chen’s escape is perhaps Wen Jiabao’s final chance to leave a concrete legacy as leader of the former group:
For years, Chen’s case has been a confusing blot on China’s aspirations for reform; every step that the country took toward greater rule of law or judicial accountability was cheapened by the fact that, ever since Chen’s legal challenges embarrassed his local government in 2005, central authorities in Beijing have been unwilling or unable to prevent local apparatchiks from systematically abusing him. His case became a kind of authoritarian tragicomedy in 2006, when Chen, who had once been celebrated in the local press for his determination to become a lawyer, was sentenced to four years and three months in jail for “destroying property” and “assembling a crowd for the purpose of disrupting traffic”—even though, at the time, he had been under house arrest. Even the nationalist corners of the Chinese press could no longer understand it. Last October, the Global Times wrote that “the case of Chen Guangcheng has become exaggerated into a mirror of China’s human rights, and it seems that we need more experienced authorities to lance this boil ….”
In his escape and his appeal, Chen has posed several questions. He has asked Premier Wen Jiabao to protect his family and address the corruption at the root of his case. In doing so, Chen has given Wen perhaps his final chance, in the final months of a frustrated ten-year term, to fulfill his oft-stated intentions to reform the system. As of now, Wen will be remembered as a well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective advocate for political reform. If he can protect Chen’s family, and bring his abusers to justice, Wen will have an accomplishment worth noting. It will do nothing to undermine Chinese stability and economic growth—so often the excuses to defer systemic reform—to address the crimes visited upon Chen Guangcheng.