An activist’s fate overshadows a vital relationship
May 5th 2012 | BEIJING | from the print edition
THE story of how Chen Guangcheng, a 40-year-old blind villager, escaped through the prison-like cordon surrounding his home and ended up hundreds of kilometres away in Beijing under American 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 on May 2nd for medical treatment, with an assurance from China that he would be safe. Within hours, Mr Chen was pleading for America to help him and his family leave the country.
Mr Chen’s case became a huge and unexpected embarrassment for both countries just as they were preparing for their annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a two-day event in Beijing that began on May 3rd. Neither the American side, led by the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, nor even less the Chinese, wanted the talks to be soured by a squabble over the treatment of a rights activist. As both sides saw it, there were far bigger issues on the table, ranging from the possibility of an imminent nuclear test by North Korea to the fragility of the global economy.
But as the talks began, a deal that the two sides appeared to have stitched together in frantic days of secret negotiations over Mr Chen was beginning to look ragged. The agreement, hailed by Mrs Clinton as reflecting “his choices and our values”, involved Mr Chen checking into a hospital (pictured above) for a foot injury sustained during his escape and being reunited there with his family. An American official said Mr Chen would be allowed to study at a university in China in a “safe environment”, implying that China had agreed to end years of relentless persecution. The official also said that China had agreed to investigate alleged abuses by the authorities in Mr Chen’s home province of Shandong.
These appeared to be modest concessions as well as a sign of unusual willingness by China to negotiate with a foreign power over the welfare of one of its citizens—even if no guarantees were involved. In theory, Mr Chen and his family should be free to go anywhere in China and do as they please. No criminal charges or other legal restrictions are pending against them. (Their house arrest for the previous 19 months had been entirely illegal.) But the Chinese negotiators did appear to be saying that somehow they would protect Mr Chen from Shandong’s snatch squads. Local police in China frequently roam far beyond their jurisdictions, often without legal pretext, to seize citizens suspected of causing political embarrassment to their hometown governments. The authorities in Beijing had not previously hinted that officials in Shandong might have erred.
Having gained admission to a Beijing hospital, however, an increasingly uneasy Mr Chen appeared to change his mind. In interviews with foreign journalists the activist and his wife spoke of a threat hanging over what had earlier seemed a joyful departure from the embassy. They said Chinese officials had previously given warning that unless Mr Chen left the American embassy, his family would be sent back to their village of Dongshigu in Shandong, more than 500km (310 miles) south-east of Beijing, where they had been confined since Mr Chen’s release at the end of a four-year jail term in 2010.
A State Department spokeswoman said that “at no time” had any American official spoken to Mr Chen about physical or legal threats by China, nor had Chinese officials conveyed such threats to the Americans. But she did confirm that China had said the family would be returned to Shandong if Mr Chen stayed in the embassy. Given the family’s sufferings in Dongshigu, it is hardly surprising that Mr Chen now says he regarded this as a threat. From the hospital where he remained as The Economist went to press, he has appealed through journalists for the Americans to help him and his family to leave the country. He told one that he would like to leave on Mrs Clinton’s plane. Mr Chen’s wife, Yuan Weijing, told The Economist, “The Americans did not do what they said they would do.” America’s ambassador to China, Gary Locke, insists Mr Chen was not pressured to leave the embassy.
The request for more American assistance could foment a diplomatic crisis. China has already made its anger at America’s involvement in Mr Chen’s case very clear. After Mr Chen left the embassy, a foreign ministry spokesman accused the Americans of interfering in China’s internal affairs and demanded an apology. He said the embassy’s behaviour had been “utterly unacceptable” and called on America to “deal with” those responsible, apparently meaning diplomats who had helped Mr Chen. The spokesman also demanded a guarantee that there would be no such cases again. The Americans hope there will not be. One official described Mr Chen’s as an “extraordinary case involving exceptional circumstances”, which he said America did not expect to be repeated.
Don’t go there
Despite widespread complaints by Chinese people about human-rights abuses, there has only been one other known example of a prominent dissident being given 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. Since then Chinese dissidents have generally shunned the notion of seeking similar refuge, not least because of concerns that they might be labelled as pawns of the West. If Mr Chen and his family are able to persuade the Americans to use diplomatic muscle to get them out of the country, others might be tempted to try. And if America helps them, a relationship already marred by mistrust and occasional acrimony could turn into one perennially strained by squabbles over human rights.
Mr Chen was the second prominent Chinese citizen to enter an American diplomatic mission for protection within three months. In February Wang Lijun, an official with the rank of deputy provincial governor, fled to the American consulate in the city of Chengdu. He walked out into central government custody a day later, reportedly of his own volition, having told the Americans about the murder of a British businessman allegedly involving the wife of Bo Xilai, the party chief of nearby Chongqing. Mr Bo has since been fired and his wife has been detained. Their case continues to roil Chinese politics.
The activist and the ambassador
President Barack Obama has faced some criticism at home for allegedly failing to do more to protect Mr Wang (a former police chief widely accused of riding roughshod over the law). Failing to help Mr Chen leave the country would give his opponents in an election year much more powerful ammunition. Unlike Mr Wang, Mr Chen is regarded by many Chinese, intellectuals and ordinary people alike, as a hero for his campaigning on behalf of victims of local injustice.
The story of Mr Chen’s flight to the American embassy is likely to bolster public admiration for him, in China and abroad. Hu Jia, a Beijing-based activist who met Mr Chen after his escape, says that during the night of April 22nd Mr Chen climbed over the two-metre high concrete wall built by the government to seal off his house. (It 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, falling down “more than 200 times” before meeting another activist who drove him to Beijing. Mr Hu says that a trembling Mr Chen held his hand and wept, repeating the words “brother, brother”, as the two men embraced for the first time in seven years.
It was an extraordinary feat given the lengths that officials in his home prefecture of Linyi had gone to in order to silence him. Mr Chen had particularly angered the Linyi authorities by exposing forced sterilisations and abortions involving thousands of women in connection with China’s one-child policy. Officials deployed dozens of civilians to keep visitors away and the Chens in their home. Many who tried to reach the family, including diplomats and journalists, were roughly turned back. After a Hollywood actor, Christian Bale, was violently blocked from entering the village in December, a foreign ministry spokesman said Mr Bale should be “embarrassed” for his attempt to “create news”. It was clear the Linyi government’s behaviour enjoyed high-level backing.
Where to now?
Mr Chen’s fears of further persecution appear well justified. Many activists believe the central government’s security apparatus, led by a powerful member of the Politburo’s standing committee, Zhou Yongkang, has given active support to the Linyi authorities. After Mr Chen’s escape, several activists who helped him, including Mr Hu in Beijing, were taken in for questioning by police about how he achieved it. Since Mr Chen’s emergence from the embassy, others have reported tighter surveillance. Mr Zhou may have suffered a political setback with the purge of his ally, Mr Bo, in Chongqing. But he has retained a high profile. The treatment of other activists as well as the continued deployment of goons in Mr Chen’s village (Mr Chen said they tied his wife to a chair for two days after he fled) suggests little change of heart within the police force.
It is likely that officials had no intention of giving Mr Chen completely free rein. China’s loosely worded state-security laws give them leeway to seize him should he be deemed a threat to the party. In November, after Mrs Clinton expressed concern about Mr Chen’s treatment, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman retorted that the Chinese government “protects the rights and interests of Chinese citizens”. But the thuggery in Mr Chen’s village continued unabated.