Blind Activist’s Escape an Opportunity for Beijing and Washington

May 2, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
Blind activist-lawyer Chen Guangcheng
Blind activist-lawyer Chen Guangcheng. (Illustration by Vivan Song/Epoch Times)

When the blind activist-lawyer Chen Guangcheng sought protection in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, the spotlight on his case shifted squarely onto the high-level official responsible for tormenting him, benefiting Chinese Communist Party (CCP) head Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. If the United States understands the context of Chen’s case, it will see that assisting Chen will advance U.S. interests.

Many commentators have spoken of Fang Lizhi and Wang Lijun as two precedents for Chen’s situation. In fact, Chen’s situation is unprecedented.

The prominent astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, who died three weeks ago in Arizona, stepped into the U.S. Embassy on June 5, 1989, the day after the Tiananmen Square massacre. He stayed there for one year until China agreed to let him leave the country in exchange for the United States easing sanctions.

On Feb. 6, Wang Lijun, the deputy mayor and former police chief of Chongqing, entered the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu and “voluntarily” left 36 hours later. That incident set off the biggest political earthquake in CCP rule and caused the ouster of former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, the most ambitious and controversial political figure in China.

The crisis triggered by Wang Lijun gives no sign of cooling down.

When Wang entered the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, he represented half of Bo Xilai’s Chongqing Model, which is “singing the red songs and hitting the black.” Wang had carried out “hitting the black”—cracking down on criminals—with an iron fist.

Most of the cases he created involved a lack of due process. Torture was the standard means to get a “confession.” The victims included Chongqing’s former police chief and private entrepreneurs. Even a lawyer who tried to defend his client was put in jail.

Wang was not the victim but the perpetrator of human rights violations, and by any standard, he was not qualified to apply for asylum. Besides, Wang was deeply involved in the dealings of Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang—dealings that Wang characterized as a conspiracy to mount a coup against presumptive CCP head Xi Jinping after he took power. The U.S. government didn’t want to get involved with Wang for good reason.

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The documents Wang carried with him probably have helped the U.S. government see more clearly the struggle between CCP officials, which is usually tightly locked inside a black box. But other than that, there was no U.S. interest in keeping Wang in the U.S. Consulate.

Fang Lizhi, the spiritual leader of the Tiananmen students, was in a different situation. Several days after he stepped into the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, he was wanted by the Beijing police for “instigating the students.” At least Beijing could openly and formally put pressure on the United States.

Burden on Chinese Regime

Chen Guangcheng doesn’t place any such burden on the United States. Chen is known around the world as an activist for women’s rights. While he is not a political dissident, he is widely respected and supported both at home and abroad. “Free Chen Guangcheng” is one of the longest-lasting grassroots campaigns in China, with a high rate of participation. The picture of Chen Guangcheng wearing sunglasses has become a symbol.

In the United States, many members of the House of Representatives have repeatedly showed their concern and support for Chen and his family. Helping Chen Guangcheng perfectly fits the beliefs that the United States is based on and will win respect from the Chinese people.

What’s more important is that the Chinese authorities are more eager than the United States to solve the crisis quietly. Some top leaders can even benefit from the crisis.

Chen Guangcheng and those who helped him didn’t break any Chinese law. Chen was jailed at home illegally. Even the local authorities can’t accuse him of escaping. He is not accused of any crime. He doesn’t possess any state secrets. Openly demanding the United States to do anything would embarrass the Chinese authorities, not the United States, even though Chen is under U.S. protection.

Higher Authorities

Chen Guangcheng’s story started with his giving legal assistance in Linyi Prefecture, Shandong Province, to the victims of the Chinese regime’s family-planning and one-child policy. Local authorities decided to get rid of him by putting him in jail.

Everyone knows that Chen’s verdict was given by a kangaroo court. Trying Chen was the joint work of the police, the court, and the procuratorate, coordinated by the Party’s Political and Legislative Affairs Committee (PLAC), but the decision to put him on trial could have been a local one.

However, after Chen’s release, what happened to him, his family, and his visitors had to involve much-higher-level authorities.

Keeping him isolated cost money. According to Chen Guangcheng’s newly released video, he was told that the budget for putting him under siege was 30 million yuan (US$4.8 million) in 2008, and currently costs more than double that.

And these figures don’t include the cost of bribing Beijing officials. These are not numbers that the local government can afford. It must have gotten financial support from higher authorities—the city, the province, or even higher.

Handling the international pressure brought to bear on Chen’s case is beyond the purview of either the local or the provincial authorities. When the “Free Chen Guangcheng Campaign” started, it not only attracted Chinese netizens to visit Chen’s village, but also attracted foreign media such as CNN.

A Western movie star also tried to visit. They were all welcomed with beatings, harassment, and threats. And the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs lied to the world about Chen’s freedom.

These are not things the provincial authorities can do or dare to do. Higher authorities have to support and coordinate these actions, as they involve at least two major ministries—Public Security and Foreign Affairs—not to mention more ministries involved in the Internet censorship of information related to Chen Guangcheng.

Only one person in the Standing Committee of the Politburo has the power, the motive, and the drive to make these arrangements. That is Zhou Yongkang, the head of the PLAC.

Maintaining Stability

The words “house arrest” hardly describe Chen Guangcheng’s situation. The authorities converted Chen’s house into a jail, with guards, security cameras, and interference with cell phone signals. They converted the whole village into a heavily guarded fortress to prevent any potential visitor. Then they continued manning this fortress and jail while under the glare of an international spotlight.

These actions are only made possible under the name of “maintaining stability” (MS). Zhou Yongkang and his security forces are the biggest beneficiary of this maintaining-stability policy.

That someone would want conflict and instability is hard to imagine, but the mechanism for maintaining stability feeds off these things. Wherever there is trouble, MS becomes important. It gets money, manpower, and importance in the political power circle.

Since the start of the persecution of Falun Gong in 1999 and, later, the establishment of the MS mechanism, the PLAC has become the most powerful organization in China, almost a second political power center.

The PLAC has the power to deploy and use the Armed Police. The budget for Public Security exceeded military expenses in 2011. Every time there is a mass incident, the security forces have always used excessive force, making things worse. The security forces don’t solve the problem; they create and enlarge the problem.

And if there is no problem, the security forces will create one and make it bigger. That’s what happened when Chen Guangcheng came home from jail. The local MS force made Chen’s home a prison to create trouble.

Above the Law

In China, there is always something or someone above the law. In Chongqing, Bo’s ambition and political campaigns were above the law. In the case of Chen’s house arrest in Linyi Prefecture, maintaining stability was above the law. Both the excesses in Chongqing and Linyi point in the same direction: Zhou Yongkang and his security force.

The scandal of Wang Lijun accusing Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang of planning a coup seems to have been serious enough to cause Zhou Yongkang trouble, but not serious enough to pull him down.

Chen Guangcheng’s magical escape has created another opportunity for Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, who have been seeking to push Zhou out. Blaming Zhou for mishandling Chen’s case is easy, and doing so makes perfect sense according to the Chinese regime’s own “leader’s responsibility policy.”

Blaming Zhou would also benefit the United States. According to one joke on the Internet, with Zhou and his security forces continuously creating trouble and making China unsafe for everyone, whether high-ranking officials or activists, the United States needs to set up a consulate in every city to meet the demand. But seriously, the United States must see that its interests are better served by a China that is not set against itself by Zhou’s security forces.

The activist Hu Jia, when interviewed by Hong Kong’s Apple newspaper, described the situation he and Chen were facing, after Chen had made it to Beijing. “We decided that almost no place is safe in China,” Hu Jia said. “Even Zhongnanhai [the CCP leadership compound in Beijing] is not safe. There is only one place safe for Chen Guangcheng. That is the U.S. Embassy.”

According to Hu Jia, Chen Guangcheng refuses to leave China. But he cannot step out of the embassy and remain under the protection of the United States. Who could guarantee his safety? One thing is certain, without Zhou Yongkang, everyone can sleep better and more safely.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.