Wednesday, May 2, 2012

An Overview of the Chen Guangcheng Story

The Bo Xilai story I wrote about yesterday is not the only important and Hollywood-like news in China at the moment. Civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng has also been the center of an also incredible but very different story. Especially since events have recently taken a significant turn, I will share some recent pieces that I have found to helpful in understanding them.

Chen Guangcheng previously led efforts to expose forced abortions and sterilizations occurring in Shandong province. After serving four years in prison for questionable reasons, he had been held in his home since 2010. In addition to there being no apparent legal merits for Chen's home detention, the scope of the efforts were striking. Tania Branigan in The Guardian describes them in her article "Chen Guangcheng: how China tried to lock down a blind man":
The campaign to keep Chen Guangcheng locked away from the world — defeated at least temporarily by his escape — has been as remarkable in its pettiness as it has been comprehensive in scope. A massive security operation has swamped the small village of Dongshigu. Scores of thugs armed with surveillance cameras, floodlights and phone-jamming technology have watched an ailing blind man, his wife, frail mother and small daughter round the clock. Relatives and neighbours who have tried to help have faced retribution. Supporters who have attempted to visit have been beaten, detained and pelted with stones.

But beyond the lockdown lies a grindingly intrusive exercise of power. At times, according to human rights groups, seven or eight men have been stationed inside the family compound. Steel shutters bar the windows of the home. Chen's elderly mother has been harassed when working in the fields. Guards escort his six-year-old daughter to school and have confiscated her toys.
Amazingly, despite the large amount of security and Chen being blind, he recently evaded his captors. David Eimer's article "Dissident Chen Guangcheng 'chased by undercover Chinese agents' as he fled to US Embassy" in The Telgraph describes Chen's escape:
"Chen told me he had prepared for the 'prison break' for at least two months. He knew the patrolling routines of the guards by heart, before climbing over the wall around his house on Sunday night," said Mr Hu.

"He injured his leg when he landed and it took him 20 hours to make his way around eight roadblocks. He told me he fell over at least 200 times, before he got picked up on Monday and driven to Beijing."

It is believed that He Peirong, a long-time friend, drove Mr Chen to Beijing, where he spent three sleepless nights before making his break to the US embassy. Ms He was later detained at her home in Nanjing, in eastern Jiangsu Province. Mr Chen's brother and nephew were also arrested, raising speculation that they played a part in his escape.
That Chen had sought the safety of the U.S. Embassy was particularly notable since Wang Lijun, once very close to Bo Xilai, had not long ago fled for his own reasons to the U.S. Consultate in Chengdu. However, the comparisons between Wang and Chen are few. Wang is reportedly connected to acts of torture. Chen is connected to acts of protecting people's rights.

With Chen at the U.S. Embassy, significant hurdles faced the U.S. and Chinese governments to resolve the issue. Some expected that Chen would eventually be granted asylum in the U.S. despite the complications involved. But there were also reports that Chen desired to stay in China. Chen made some of his hopes clear in a 15 minute video addressing Premier Wen Jiabo. A version with English subtitles was produced by CHINAaid:

Today, in a key development Chen left the protection of the U.S. Embassy. On the way to a hospital with U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke, Chen requested to speak to The Washington Post, possibly due to its early coverage of his efforts (thanks to Gady Epstein for noting this connection). The Washington Post's Keith Richburg and Jia Lynn Yang describe the current situation in their article "Chen Guangcheng leaves U.S. embassy after assurances he will be treated humanely, U.S. says":
Accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke, Chen went to Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing and was apparently taken to the VIP clinic, which was blocked off from reporters by hospital security guards and plainclothes police. U.S. officials said Chen, a self-taught lawyer, was to be reunited with his family at the hospital...

U.S. officials said Chen made clear from the beginning that he did not want to leave China, and that he wanted his stay in the embassy to be temporary. He did not seek asylum. His priority was reuniting with his wife, two children and other family members. He has a son who he has not seen in about two years.

The Chinese government agreed that Chen would be treated humanely, moved from his village to a safe place, reunited with his family and allowed to enroll in a university, the officials said. “We understand there are no remaining legal issues . . . and that he will be treated as any other student in China,” said a senior official.

They also said Chinese authorities agreed to investigate the “extralegal” activities of the local authorities in Chen’s hometown, who have allowed armed men to effectively confine Chen to his farmhouse in Shandong province, preventing celebrities, journalists and others who tried to visit him from entering.
The story remains fluid but assuming the above it will be critical to see how China will carry out its side of the agreement. For example, what assurances are there that Chen will not be later subjected to trumped-up charges to justify detaining him again?

Like the Bo Xilai case, there is also much to say about how the story was reported in China and the heavy (and sometimes amazingly quick) censorship of online discussion. But again, I think the above is enough to digest for one post. I highly recommend reading all of the mentioned articles and viewing the video. I have provided some more details on my Twitter account, primarily through retweeting some of what has caught my eye. As I look now, a variety of details about today's events continue to evolve.

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