HONG KONG – Beijing has scored points in its handling of the case of Chen Guangcheng, first by agreeing to guarantee his safety by relocating him and his family to another city where he can study law and then, after the blind activist changed his mind and decided to go abroad, by publicly saying that he has the right of any “regular citizen” to travel and issuing him a passport.
The arrival of Chen, his wife and their two children in the United States marks an end to the crisis sparked by his taking refuge in the American embassy days before high-level talks between the U.S. and China were scheduled to convene. All the parties emerged more or less unscathed.
The U.S. is seen as again standing up for human rights, helping a victim of political persecution leave his country. Chen now has a chance to rest, recuperate and study law in an academic setting at New York University. And China has emerged looking like a responsible country that can make pragmatic decisions in a crisis and that can be counted on to keep its word.
The question is what lessons the Chinese government has learned from this highly charged episode and whether there will be real changes in the way local authorities across the country deal with the people.
One positive sign is that a central government official held a series of meetings with the blind activist while he was at Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing, seeking further information about allegations of wrongdoings by local officials in Shandong province, including corruption and abuses against him and his family.
Such an investigation was one of Chen’s principal demands, and if Beijing conducts a thorough investigation, publishes its findings and punishes those responsible, then officials in other parts of China may be deterred from similar illegal behavior. Beijing’s attitude seems to be that it was unaware of widely publicized wrongdoing in Shandong and other provinces.
Well, now it can no longer pretend to be ignorant. Now, the world’s eyes are on Beijing to see what it will do. So far, it seems, very little.
In Shanghai, another activist, Feng Zhenghu, who has been under illegal detention at his home since February, remains confined, with no sign that such illegal treatment is about to end. Like Chen, Feng has not been charged with any crime, and authorities have no legal justification for keeping him under house arrest.
“The illegal house arrest of Feng, similar to the treatment that Chen Guangcheng was subjected to, says that this form of persecution is certainly not unique to Shandong,” said Renee Xia, international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a nongovernmental group with members both in China and outside. Meanwhile, the blind activist’s native village in Shandong province, Dongshigu, continues to be sealed off from journalists and his relatives continue to be persecuted and tortured by local authorities.
GlobalPost, an online U.S. news company, quoted Chen’s brother, Chen Guangfu, as saying: “They put me on a chair, bound my feet with iron chains and locked my hands with handcuffs behind my back. They pulled my hands upward forcefully. Then they slapped me in the face.” Chen Guangfu, like his brother, succeeded in escaping from the village in the middle of the night by eluding guards and running through fields to Beijing.
The blind activist’s nephew, Chen Kegui — Chen Guangfu’s son — has been arrested and deprived of his right to a lawyer of his choice. The younger Chen’s home was broken into by plainclothes security personnel and he fought off the intruders with a knife. Now it is said he may face the death penalty for wounding.
The essentially trumped-up charges against Chen Kegui may result in the tragedy of Chen Guangcheng repeating itself into the next generation.
If the central government is serious about preventing abuses by local officials, it has to step in before it is too late. But it may be difficult for Beijing to do so.
All across the country, local officials are behaving illegally in an attempt to “maintain stability” while creating numerous cases of human rights abuse.
The central government may well believe that if it intervenes to stop such illegal behavior, it will simply be opening a Pandora’s box and possibly make the country ungovernable — that is to say, from Beijing’s standpoint. The illegal clampdown may well have to continue across the country for the central government to remain in power.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. Email: Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @FrankChing1