Saturday, April 28, 2012

Escape of blind lawyer challenges China's status quo

News of the dramatic escape of blind Chinese lawyer Chen Guangchen [陈光诚] has not escaped the watchful eye of state censors. Western media outlets broadcast the news of Chen's escape with some describing it as being like a Hollywood thriller. It was all the more dramatic given Chen's disability. And although there has been no official confirmation Chen is now believed to be safely holed up in the US Embassy.


The drama began on Sunday when Chen, the 40 year old civil rights activist, managed to evade the guards who maintained vigil at his home in Dongshigu village, Shandong province in eastern China. He had been held under house arrest since September 2010, and visitors were kept away by burly men who were not afraid to use violence. Journalists who attempted to visit the lawyer were beaten, manhandled and chased from the area. Amongst one of the most high profile incidents was when Batman actor Christian Bale tried to meet the activist accompanied by a crew from CNN.

The treatment meted out to journalists is dwarfed by the beatings Chen himself has suffered. In a video he posted on YouTube following his escape Chen spoke of the severe beatings both he and his wife had endured from thugs under pay from the state. In the 15 minute video the high-profile activist makes three key demands directly to Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, while describing the harsh conditions of his detention.


"Dear Premier Wen - With great difficulty, I finally escaped. All the rumours and claims on the Internet about violence against me and my wife … I tell you that they are all true ... The truth is even worse than what has been spread online." [BBC]

He goes on to ask Wen to investigate the case of abuse against him and punish the individuals concerned, bring and end to corruption and ensure the safety of his wife and child.


There was an apparent naivety in Chen's requests. His fear for his family are warranted since family members are often punished in retribution in such cases. In fact there were indications that measures had already been taken. UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said she was concerned for the wellbeing of Chen and his family. "I'm disturbed to hear reports that other family members, including his brother Chen Guangfu and nephew Chen Kegui, have now been detained," she said in a statement which was also posted to Twitter.

Deaf ears

It is unlikely that the state will listen to the other pleas of a blind lawyer whom they have tried to silence for so long. The likelihood of any punishment being handed out to his state funded captors is also slim. And even if the will existed to stamp out corruption, the recent Bo Xilai scandal has shown that corruption is not only rife, but can go unchecked for years, out of sight of the central government.

The most cautious approach China might employ would be to quietly ignore Chen's family. Any retribution would undoubtedly draw further bad press for a country that has already had a huge amount of unwanted scrutiny following the Bo Xilai scandal and the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.

Last night China were tight-lipped concerning Chen. The Ministry spokesman  Liu Weimi said he had "no information" about the activist. The US embassy, where Chen is believed to have sought sanctuary, also declined to comment on Friday.

Long drive

Some reports say he entered the embassy on Thursday after a long drive of more than 500 km to the capital. According to He Peirong, a friend who says she travelled with him, Chen had prepared for his escape for months and evaded his guards on Sunday night, scaling a high wall before making his way to a waiting vehicle.

In an interview Friday afternoon, Bob Fu, president of the US-based Christian human rights group ChinaAid, confirmed that Chen escaped on 22nd April and said the activist was now in Beijing in a "100% safe location."

"I can't say more as there might be some diplomatic issues," Fu added, saying that his group had acted as a "facilitator" in the escape, helping to brief the US government and diplomats.

Awkward timing

Whether or not Chen is at the US Embassy, merely under protection of diplomatic staff or hiding at a safe house, his escape is extremely embarrassing for China. The timing is also awkward given both US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner are both due to set foot in China next week.

Once again all eyes are on China for all the wrong reasons and in an attempt to stop the swell of rumours, China is once again using its power to stop the flow of information.


Chinese bloggers and activists have been speculating about how Chen Guangcheng might have made his daring escape from his heavily guarded home. But most of these discussion have taken place outside of China. Inside the Middle Kingdom China's censors have stepped up their activity. In order to escape their attention web users were referring to Chen as "the blind man" or simply by his initials, CGC. But these phrases too have now been blocked by moderators. "Almost all of my posts about Mr Chen on Weibo [a Chinese microblogging platform] have been censored," BeiFeng told the BBC. "I had to keep changing the phrases I used."

Searches for Chen Guangcheng on Baidu, China's highly censored search engine, brought up only a few results and a message saying "Accordance with relevant laws, regulations and policies, some search results were not displayed." Results displayed in its news section were also limited and pointed to articles more than three years old. There were no mentions on any major news portals and Xinhua's own search engine Panguso returned results that were mostly unrelated to the activist.

For most people the news that Chen had escaped will be little more than a rumour. Only those able to read foreign language news sources or access the Internet outside of China through a VPN [Virtual Private Network] will be privy to the full details.

Dark side

The spotlight on China has increased once again, and what it illuminates is not pleasing. Chen's escape, the murder of Neil Heywood, the deep seated corruption exposed by the Bo Xilai scandal, and the state censorship of such events, are highlighting the dark sides of China they would prefer to hide. Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, reacting to Chen's escape said the case "highlights the yawning divide between the government's often lofty rhetoric about rule of law and the far grimmer reality endured by people like Chen who challenge the status quo."

The status quo has been challenged on many fronts over the past few months. Whether China will make changes for the better remains to be seen [Sky / BBC / CNN].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Full translated transcript of  Chen Guangcheng's statement which was posted to YouTube.

Dear Premier Wen Jiabao,

I finally escaped. All the stories online about the brutal treatment I received from the Linyi authorities, I can personally testify they are true. The reality is even harsher than the stories that have been circulating.

Premier Wen, I hereby formally make the following three requests.
First, I would like you to personally intervene in this matter by sending an investigation team to find out the truth. Those who ordered county-level police and officials to break into my house, beat and hurt me, refused me medical attention -- without any legal foundation or officers wearing uniforms -- whoever made the decision has to be investigated and punished according to law. Their actions are so cruel it has greatly harmed the image of the Communist Party.

They broke into my house and more than a dozen men assaulted my wife. They pinned her down and wrapped her in a blanket, beating and kicking her for hours. They also violently assaulted me. Zhang Jian... many of county policemen whom we know like He Yong, Zhang Shengdong... and the men who repeatedly beat my wife before my release from prison like Li Xianli, Li Xianqiang, Gao Xinjian, etc. -- they all have to be seriously dealt with. There is another man whose family name is Xue.

As an affected party, I hereby accuse them of the following crimes: When they came to my house to assault us, Zhang Jian, the deputy Party secretary in charge of law enforcement in Shuanghou township, said to me unequivocally: "We don't care about the law and we are ignoring the law -- what can you do about it?" He repeated led people to my home to attack and rob us.

Li Xianli, who heads Team 1 that illegally confined me in my house, repeatedly beat my wife -- once even pulling her off a car to assault her. He also beat my mother. Simply monstrous. Li Xianqiang, an official with the township's judicial authority, beat my wife last year, gravely injuring her left arm.

The man who guarded the village entrance and attacked Christian Bale -- I understand his name is Zhang Shenghe, an official with our township. He is the so-called "Military Coat" (or "Pandaman") in netizen's descriptions. Last February, he also hurled rocks at the CNN team. It was him -- no mistake -- I know that.

I also heard some netizens were assaulted by female guards. At first I didn't know there were female guards. Then I learned those so-called female goons were woman's affairs chiefs from surrounding villages or their families.

Then there is Gao Xinjian and many others whose names I don't know. I know they come from the police force, even though they don't wear uniforms and denied to be policemen. I asked them who they were and they scoffed: "We are sent by the Party and we work for the Party." I don't believe them. At most they work for a corrupt official within the Party.

From what I learned, other than various officials, each team guarding me has more than 20 people. They have three teams with a total of 70 to 80 people. When more netizens tried to visit me recently, they had several hundred people at one time and completely sealed off my village.

Starting with my home, they station a team inside the house and another one outside guarding the four corners. Further out, they block every road leading to my house, all the way to the village entrance. They even have 7 to 8 people guarding bridges in neighboring villages. These corrupt officials draw people from neighboring villages into this and they have cars patrolling areas within a five-kilometer radius of my village.

Besides all these layers of security around my house -- I think there are 7 to 8 layers -- they have also numbered all the roads leading to my village, going up to 28 with guards assigned to them daily. The whole situation is just so over the top. I understand the number of officials and policemen who participate in my persecution adds up to some 100 people. They repeatedly hurt us illegally and I demand a thorough investigation.

Second, although I'm free, my worries are only deepening. My wife, mother and children are still in their evil hands. They have been persecuting my family for a long time and my escape would only prompt them into a mode of revenge. Such retribution would only become worse.

They once broke my wife's left orbital bone. She suffers lumbar disc protrusion from all the beating and there are still lumps on her ribs due to physical assaults. She has been cruelly denied medical treatment.

My elderly mother, on her birthday, was pushed to the ground with her head hitting the door. She was crying and accused them of attacking an old woman. They scoffed: "It's true we're young and that's why you can't beat us." How shameless, how cruel and how unjust.

My child goes to school accompanied by three guards. They search her bag every day and stop her from leaving school ground or home.

From July 29 to December 14 last year, they cut off power to my house. From last February onward, they have barred my mother from going out to buy groceries, making our lives extremely difficult.

I am very worried. I implore netizens to pay more attention to my family to ensure their safety. I also implore the Chinese government to ensure the safety of my family based on the principles of upholding the rule of law and protecting the interest of the people. If anything is to happen to my family, I will pursue this issue to no end.

Third, many people wonder why my situation has dragged on for so long without a resolution. I can say this: It's because the local authorities -- the decision-makers and the enforcers -- have no intention of resolving this. For the decision-makers, they are afraid of their crimes being exposed. For the enforcers, there is a lot of corruption involved.

I remember when they humiliated me last August in the Cultural Revolutionary style, they told me, you said in your video that 30 million yuan was spent on (your house arrest), that was the 2008 figure -- now the amount is more than double that and that's not even including bribery money for officials in Beijing. Some of the hired guards have complained that they make so little since most of the money has gone to others.

It's been a great opportunity for all of them to make money. As I understand, the township gives team leaders money to hire guards and each guard is supposed to get 100 yuan per day. Those team leaders tell potential hires that they get only 90 of the 100 yuan. Since most farmers get 50 to 60 yuan working in the field, and the guard job is considered safe and comfortable with meals included, of course people are willing to take it. In just one team, with more than 20 guards, the team leader gets 200 yuan extra per day. How corrupt is that?

The leader of the guards watching my wife sells vegetables he grows to the teams for a profit. These things are well known but there's nothing ordinary people can do about them.

As for the "stability maintenance" budget, they told us the county would give the township several million yuan at a time and local officials would still complain how little they get. You can see the serious corruption involved in this process and how they abuse money and power.

Premier Wen, I would like to see you investigate and punish those corrupt officials who squander our taxpayer money on harming innocent people as well as the Party's image. When they commit despicable crimes, they always claim they are doing what the Party has asked them to.

Premier Wen, all those illegal actions have baffled many people -- is it just local officials flagrantly violating the law or do they have the support of the central government? I hope you will give the public a clear answer in the near future. If we have a thorough investigation into my case and announce the result, I think people would appreciate. If you continue to ignore me, what would the public think? [Originally posted on blogger by CNN's Steven Jiang]

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