The recent drama over dissident Chen Guangcheng (far right) highlights the Communist authorities’ “profound insecurity,” says a former U.S. envoy, as Washington’s current ambassador to Beijing drew praise for his stance on human rights.
The blind barefoot lawyer today expressed fears that his nephew, Chen Kegui, may be tortured after being detained by security forces in his “lawless” home province of Shandong.
“My nephew certainly can’t be in good condition in their hands. He’ll certainly be tortured there,” he told the Guardian. “The public security organs, procuratorial organs and people’s courts are absolutely lawless in Shandong province.”
Chen said both the U.S. and the Chinese authorities have been patiently moving towards a deal that would allow him to study at New York University. But he was concerned at the lack of visible progress over recent days.
“Right now, there’s no progress,” he said, adding “I can’t predict what sort of problems I might encounter.”
Former U.S. commerce secretary and Washington state governor Gary Locke (above, left) “wasn’t considered much of a heavyweight on human rights” when he became the first Chinese-American envoy to Beijing last year,” AP reports:
Yet, nine months on, Locke’s key role in the recent drama over blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng has put him on the front lines of U.S. concerns about China’s embattled dissident community. Chen’s sudden escape from house arrest and a U.S. decision to give him sanctuary in the U.S. Embassy gave Locke his first crisis as ambassador, made him a target of criticism from Beijing and earned him respect from the human rights lobby.
Chen’s case illuminates two of the most important characteristics of China’s political system, says a former envoy to Beijing.
“First, despite China’s economic success and growing regional influence, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is profoundly insecure. Second, the Chinese people are increasingly demanding a more transparent and fair society,” writes Jon Huntsman, U.S. ambassador to China from 2009-2011:
The Communist Party’s insecurity has been amplified by the 18th Party Congress, an unprecedented leadership transition taking place this fall with a backdrop of domestic political scandal, social unrest, uncertainties about the Chinese growth model, and increased tensions with the United States. The party fears that liberalization would unleash centrifugal forces that would threaten its authority. Yet people such as Mr. Chen, artist and dissident Ai Wei Wei, Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is now imprisoned in China, and so many others provide a glimpse of China’s potential if it were to unlock the talents of its people.
Chen’s high-profile escape “has sparked renewed speculation over the stability of China’s domestic political situation” and “caused considerable embarrassment to the Chinese Communist Party’s much-vaunted unity.” according to Liu Liu and Benjamin Ho Tze Ern, analysts at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
The question is whether recent events have “provided Beijing with the opportunity to publicly enforce its stand on factional struggles, thus paving the way for longer-term unity under a new leadership,” they suggest:
It’s also not inconceivable that the Bo Xilai affair could increase expectations for the party to expedite political reforms. And while this may not always be perceived positively by individual party members, it has nonetheless made clear the need for change at a higher level. Still, all this may also heighten party tensions, particularly in the short-term, over how the leadership transition ought to take place.
Some activists and analysts worry that exile will condemn Chen to a life of political impotence, the fate of several earlier dissidents, including Fang Lizhi, while other activists, including Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo have rejected the option of leaving China.
“He’ll be besieged by people wanting him to give lectures. He’s going to have people after him to do TV broadcasts, write a book. He’s going to have to have some set of priorities and some discipline,” New York University’s Jerome Cohen told AFP. “After a period of time, he’ll have to see: Does he want to go back to China? Is he allowed to go back to China? What are the circumstances under which he could operate in China?”
Other dissidents, like writer Yu Jie and Wei Jingsheng have been allowed or forced into exile:
“If I had my choice, of course I would rather be in China because you can do more when you are in China,” Wei said. “But when I left, the government made it clear that if I came back the only place I could live would be in jail.”
“Making a living is the first step for any exile, but this is very difficult,” said Wei, who heads the Wei Jingsheng Foundation, which works to advance democracy in China. “If you are successful in earning a living, then you may find no time for democracy and human rights work.”
“On the other hand, if you continue to advocate for democracy in China, you may have little time to get your life in order.”
While Fang Lizhi wanted to leave, leading China scholar Perry Link understands why Chen is ambivalent.
“This was different in a sense … because, in those days, to leave and go to the U.S. didn’t seem to be leaving the Chinese democracy movement quite as clearly as it does now,” Link says. “The record of the last decades shows that Chinese dissidents who leave China become irrelevant inside China.”
“Regardless of the outcome in either case, the Communist Party’s image has been badly tarnished. For a Chinese government that seems bent on investing in soft power, these last few months have offered clear reminders that soft power cannot be bought. It must be earned,” says Ma, an analyst in Eurasia Group’s Asia practice:
China’s familiar tools of propaganda have been overwhelmed by frenzied speculation about the case in the Western press and China’s social media echo chamber — yet another reminder that Beijing can no longer afford to ignore Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter…..
“It is almost mind-blowing to see his friends posting on Twitter conversations with him, things like who picked him up in Beijing and where,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert with the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It’s a total sea change from how this may have been handled decades ago.”
In both the Chen case and the Bo Xilai story, the official state-run media has tried to squeeze the information flow to a trickle. In both cases, their attempts have largely failed.
“It really illustrates the challenge that social media poses for systems that rely on an extremely tight control of information,” said Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The erosion of information control is an enormous challenge for the party.”