A blind activist's escape from house arrest and the dismissal of a Politburo member spotlight blatant abuses in the provinces and, one expert says, show the need for Beijing to exercise more control over local authorities.
The dramatic escape from unlawful house arrest by blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng and the continuing investigation into former Communist Party Politburo member Bo Xilai have presented China’s rulers with twin crises with a common theme: corrupt and abusive behavior by local party bosses and security officials operating with impunity in their fiefdoms many miles from the capital, Beijing.
How the two cases are ultimately resolved may also help answer one of the underlying puzzles of modern China’s political structure: how much do the central authorities tolerate such blatant abuses in the provinces, and how much escapes the notice or control of Beijing?
Meanwhile, China’s struggle to contain its biggest political shake-up in two decades may give the Obama administration an opening to resolve the case of a blind activist who reportedly fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
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As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Beijing Tuesday for annual meetings, a U.S. official confirmed for the first time that separate negotiations on the fate of Chen Guangcheng are under way in the Chinese capital between Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, other U.S. diplomats and Chinese officials.
Chen is under U.S. protection after escaping house arrest in Shandong province last week, ChinaAid, a human-rights group based in Midland, Texas, reported. Clinton vowed Monday to raise human-rights issues with Chinese authorities during talks in Beijing this week.
China has little incentive to take a hard line on Chen as it grapples with the ouster of Politburo member Bo Xilai and the arrest of his wife and an aide on suspicion of killing a British businessman, former U.S. State Department official Kenneth Quinones said. Bo’s downfall has sparked the biggest upheaval since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
“Eventually a reason will be found to admit him to the United States for medical reasons or to allow him to go to a third nation,” said Quinones, now a professor at Akita International University in Japan.
The Chen case resembles that of Fang Lizhi, a physics professor who was housed in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for 13 months before he left the country after the Tiananmen uprising.
“It worked for Fang Lizhi after a long, long period of waiting,” said Lowell Dittmer, a professor of political science and China specialist at the University of California, Berkeley.
Complicating matters is the uncertainty of whether Chen is willing to leave China, said Stuart Harris, an emeritus professor of international relations at Australian National University in Canberra.
“The Americans would have to persuade him that he has to go, otherwise his family is not safe,” Harris said. “That would be the first obstacle to overcome. The second would be China’s willingness to let him go. At the present time they’ve got a lot of problems on their plate without having another one.”
Another possible template for the Chen case is that of Harry Wu, who was deported from China in 1995, hours after he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for spying. A harsh sentence for Chen followed by a deportation is another way China could justify his release, Berkeley’s Dittmer said.
“I would say that at this point the Chinese government is trying to negotiate a deal in which he travels to a third country, not the United States and not staying in China,” said Linda Jakobson, East Asia program director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. “Most dissidents who leave China become rather rapidly less influential than when they were in China standing up to the authorities.”
Chen’s supporters, including in the international community, have complained long and loudly that he was being confined illegally by plainclothes armed thugs in his farmhouse in Dongshigu village in Shandong province.
Clinton and others regularly raised Chen’s case with senior Chinese officials. And when actor Christian Bale was roughed up trying to visit Chen in December, central-government censors knew enough about the case to black out the story on the CNN broadcast here.
After years of facing international criticism of its human-rights record, China’s rulers now seem to be allowing local authorities to take the lead in silencing critics, sometimes through spurious legal charges, large fines and lengthy jail sentences, and often through other extrajudicial means, such as house arrests and “disappearances.”
In the case of renowned artist and activist Ai Weiwei, for example, the Beijing municipal tax authority has taken the lead in bringing charges against him — for alleged tax evasion involving a company he controls.
In Chen’s case, the local authorities behaved so crudely — and, ultimately, ineptly — that Beijing’s Global Times newspaper, which is owned by the Communist Party and largely echoes the official line, criticized the local government.
Central government authorities, and the state-run media parroting the party line, have tried to paint the case of Bo Xilai as an isolated local incident.
The investigation of Bo began when his former police chief and right-hand man, Wang Lijun, left the city of Chongqing and entered the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu 200 miles away. Wang stayed at the consulate for more than 24 hours, revealing a tale of corruption, mistrust and murder involving Bo, his wife, Gu Kailai, and his aides. Wang was then taken by central security agents to Beijing.
But stories of Bo’s ruthless methods, particularly during his crackdown on organized crime, have been circulating for years.
Also, Bo’s measures to revive “red culture,” including ordering Chongqing television to broadcast only “patriotic” programs during prime time and organizing mass sing-alongs of Mao Zedong-era revolutionary songs, were widely covered in China’s media, and even attracted some criticism.
During his tenure in Chongqing, Bo became so toxic to party leaders that from the time he was appointed party chief in November 2007 until his sacking in March, neither President Hu Jintao nor Premier Wen Jiabao visited Chongqing. Yet Bo was never reined in by his bosses in Beijing.
Wang Xiangwei, chief editor of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper, wrote in an April 30 column that the two incidents together — Chen’s escape and Bo’s fall — show the need for the central government to exercise more control over local authorities.
Wang said Chen had done the correct thing by exposing how local officials in Linyi city, where his village is located, had forced thousands of women to have abortions against their will.
“In any other country, Chen would have been hailed as a hero. But in Shandong, he was treated as a criminal, jailed and constantly harassed after his release.”
“Even sadder, the central government seems powerless to stop local officials from committing such sins,” Wang wrote. “This may be very hard for outsiders to believe, but the leaders in Beijing have far less influence than expected in important regional decisions, whether they be economic or social. The latest example is Bo’s case. Bo ruled Chongqing as an overlord for five years, and leaders in Beijing seemed clueless until recently about how to deal with him.”
“This phenomenon does exist in China now,” said Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at Beijing Institute of Technology. “The local governments always screw something up, and the central government has to come in and cover up for them.”
“Many people believe China is a highly centralized country. But really, that’s a misunderstanding,” Hu said. “The central government’s power isn’t so big. … Some local officials, like the party secretary of a county or a city, is always called the ‘local emperor,’ which reflects how big their power is.”
Chen, in his videotaped message to Wen on YouTube, seemed to offer China’s central authorities a way out of the current impasse — by blaming his plight on corrupt local officials in Linyi and appealing to Beijing for help.
“I think Chen was very careful not to corner Beijing,” said Bequelin, the Human Rights Watch researcher. “He essentially said, ‘I pretend that you, the central government, did not know about it, to give you an opportunity to respond positively.’ “
“This is such an opportunity,” Bequelin said. “The question is, why isn’t Beijing doing it”
Material from Bloomberg News
is included in this report.