Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

Chen Guangcheng: The great escape [The Economist]


Chen Guangcheng accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke (R) at a hospital in Beijing Photo: REUTERS

The narratives of fallen princeling and blind activist converge to change the complexion of the Chinese meta narrative. Or so it seems. Recent media glare has been nothing short of intense.

Trending like wildfire in both traditional and new media, Bo Xilai and now Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) are certainly making headlines in a landscape where Chinese soft power and its national image seems to be taking a global hit.

Has the CCP’s grip on power and control of information facing an unprecedented challenge since 1989? Perhaps things have gotten out of hand in an unsteady transition to a new generation of leadership, encumbered by legacies on one hand, and suspicion on the other.

Is the party finally showing a vulnerability not seen in decades? China’s Great Firewall of censorship is now on overdrive as all manner of search terms have been banned – to the extent of Chen’s surname, which is one of the most common of Chinese surnames.

A previously successful message illuminated by the headlights of economic growth now sees new challenges. This in some ways was to be expected. As China opened up and learnt the ways of connectivity with networked societies, it had to learn to cross the river of old paradigms of building great walls one stone at a time.

Whatever way it goes, this is an interesting twist to China’s policy of non-intervention as it pushes its definition of  domestic out of traditional boundaries to signal transnational reactions to whatever it sees as a domestic affair – translating to its people and territory as it demanded the US to return Chen, seen here as an act of petulance over dissent. The nationalistic Global Times postures the Chinese position clear in ‘Chen and embassy should not delude themselves‘.

In a nutshell –
One blind dissident once characterized for bringing international attention to forced late-term abortions reveals the Chinese sleight of non-intervention.

The Party has never taken kindly to those who criticize its methods (Ai Weiwei took up the spotlight last year) and there are no indicators of that changing.Chen, who really punctured the utility of its one-child policy in the international press pissed them off leading to his house arrest. When he escapes, they get even more pissed off – behaving without the nuances of its peaceful co-existence paradigm and it really showed.

What is also emerging as a pattern, is that Chen, like Wang Lijun (in the Bo Xilai case), both sought refuge in American embassies in times of adversity. As it is, Chen is now back in Chinese hands after high-level talks despite wanting to go to the US. And, all this is concurrent with the fourth round of the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing.

To follow the story…

Two very different characters rewriting China’s script (CNN, May 2, 2012)

China urges US to stop misleading the public after harboring Chen Guangcheng (China Daily/Xinhua, May 2, 2012)

China denounces US as dissident Chen leaves embassy (AsiaOne/Reuters, May 2, 2012)

Chen Guangcheng left US embassy ‘after family threats’ (BBC, May 2, 2012)

Chen Guangcheng: America shows a naivity that beggars belief (Telegraph, May 2, 2012)

Activist Chen Guangcheng is in a new bid to leave China, baulking at high-level deal (The Australian, May 3, 2012)

– – –

Chen Guangcheng: The great escape
by J.M.
Source – Economist, published May 2, 2012

THE STORY of how Chen Guangcheng, a 40-year-old blind villager, escaped through the prison-like security cordon surrounding his home and ended up hundreds of miles away in Beijing under American diplomatic protection will long be recounted as one of the most dramatic episodes in America’s dealings with China over human rights. After six days at the American Embassy, Mr Chen left “of his own accord”, the two governments said, to receive medical treatment in a Beijing hospital. Mr Chen, it was reported, would stay in China and be allowed to attend university. A subsequent report from Associated Press stated that Mr Chen left the embassy after threats were made against his wife.

Despite ubiquitous complaints by Chinese about human-rights abuses, there has only been one other known example of a dissident being granted protective custody by a foreign diplomatic mission in Communist-ruled China. That was in 1989, when Fang Lizhi, an astrophysicist accused by China of stirring up the Tiananmen Square unrest that year, was admitted with his wife to the American ambassador’s residence. Arrangements for their safe passage to America, where Mr Fang died last month, took more than a year. China is now a much stronger country and America far more anxious not to displease it. The announcement on May 2nd that Mr Chen had left the embassy (he checked into a hospital, accompanied by America’s ambassador, Gary Locke) appeared to signal at least a temporary compromise. But China also demanded an apology from America for taking Mr Chen into the embassy and gave no public guarantee of his safety.

Both countries were anxious that Mr Chen’s flight should not spoil their annual high-level “strategic and economic dialogue”, a two-day event which began in Beijing on May 3rd. They are being led on the American side by the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, neither of whom want a human-rights case to overshadow discussions about issues ranging from a possibly imminent nuclear test by North Korea to global economic rebalancing. The timing was especially bad for China, which was already under enormous political stress following the flight of a senior provincial official to an American consulate in Chengdu in February and the dismissal it led to of a Politburo member, Bo Xilai.

Mr Chen’s journey began in the village of Dongshigu in Shandong Province, more than 500 km (300 miles) south-east of Beijing, where he had been kept under house arrest since his release at the end of a four-year jail term in 2010. Local officials have long been determined to silence Mr Chen, a self-taught legal worker who became widely known for championing victims of local injustice. Mr Chen particularly angered the authorities by exposing forced sterilisations and abortions involving thousands of women in connection with China’s one-child policy.  No legal basis was ever produced for keeping Mr Chen confined to his home, nor for deploying dozens of thugs to keep visitors away, sometimes with violence. The goons appeared to enjoy backing from at least some leaders in Beijing.

Hu Jia, a Beijing-based activist who met Mr Chen after his escape, says that during the night Mr Chen climbed over the two-metre high concrete wall built by the government to seal off his house. (The house was normally floodlit by his guards, who also jammed mobile-phone signals.) For some 20 hours, says Mr Hu, Mr Chen struggled on his own, navigating “eight lines of defence” and falling down “more than 200 times” before meeting another activist, He Peirong, who drove him to Beijing.  Mr Hu says that Mr Chen wept and said repeatedly, “brother, brother”, as the two men embraced for the first time in seven years. Mr Chen’s hand trembled constantly as it gripped Mr Hu’s.

Mr Chen’s problems were not yet over, however. Before he was finally delivered into American protection Mr Chen was followed in Beijing by what appeared to be secret police. Mr Hu says he does not know whether the police were aware they were tailing Mr Chen, or whether they were merely conducting routine surveillance of his dissident escort. Both countries kept quiet about Mr Chen’s escape and his sojourn at the embassy until after he left. China then made its anger clear, accusing America of interfering in China’s internal affairs. It said this was “utterly unacceptable” and called on America to “deal with” those responsible, apparently meaning diplomats who helped him.

Some of this could be posturing, aimed at defusing criticism of the leadership by hardliners resentful of any kind of negotiation with America over the fate of a Chinese citizen. Hardliners are a powerful force in China’s security apparatus. Since Mr Chen’s flight, several activists who helped or met Mr Chen after his escape, including Mr Hu, have been called in by police in Beijing and elsewhere for interrogations about how he achieved the feat. Ms He, who drove him to Beijing, remains missing. Mr Chen’s wife and two children have been escorted by officials to join him in Beijing. But even if America has secured a way of ensuring their safety, others like them can still expect short shrift.


Filed under: Beijing Consensus, Censorship, Charm Offensive, Cheng Guangcheng, Chinese Model, Democracy, Economist, Government & Policy, Great Firewall, Human Rights, International Relations, Mapping Feelings, Media, Peaceful Development, People, Politics, Public Diplomacy, Social, Soft Power, Strategy, Tao Guang Yang Hui (韬光养晦), The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities, U.S.

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