Yesterday it was reported Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest in Linyi. Now, the blind self-taught lawyer who defended villagers forced to undergo abortions and sterilizations is at “the 100% safe location” in Beijing – presumably the US embassy, but we still don’t really know. He’s also released a 15-minute video where he details the beatings and deplorable treatment he and his family have received while they were detained by upwards of 80 guards. His family remains in Linyi under their watch.
This comes at a terrible time for the Chinese government. The Communist Party has been trying desperately to parade Bo Xilai’s arrest as evidence that China is under the rule of law. People’s Daily recently mentioned “the law” 23 times in a single editorial. There’s perhaps nobody that makes a mockery of this more than Chen Guangcheng.
Chen spent four years in prison on trumped up charges of “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic.” In the 18 months since his release he’s been under house arrest despite never being charged with any additional crimes. His family – including his 6-year old daughter – has also been detained.
Over the past few years Chen has become a folk-hero among activists in China, perhaps only second to Ai Weiwei in fame. The Shawshank-like escape of the blind dissident through dozens of state thugs is a metaphor that won’t be lost on his supporters
What happens next will be very interesting. The most comparable event in recent memory is when Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in late 2010. Then and now there’s really no positive way the government can spin it. And the Party now basically has the same choices it did then:
- Show restraint. Acknowledge, but downplay the story as best it can until it blows over. Perhaps even allow a few commentaries that aren’t hyper-critical of the event to show that the leadership isn’t so insecure.
- Actively retaliate with the full extent of police and media power.
You’ll notice there isn’t a third option of officially ignoring the event and trying to block out any mention of it. We’ll probably see that for several days, but the internet has made it an impossible long-term strategy for a story as sensational as this.
In Liu Xiaobo’s case the second option was taken. Liu’s wife and several activists were detained, people were stopped from leaving the country, and we got a daily barrage of inflammatory editorials portraying the prize as a farce concocted by the West to keep China down.
The episode was a PR disaster. The official response only reinforced everything that the award was criticizing. Had the Chinese government taken the first option, it still would have been embarrassing, but some semblance of dignity and face would have been saved. Now we get to see if anything was learned from the Nobel affair.
If the same strategy is used now, it’ll face some big challenges. In this case, the government has no foreigners to blame. As belligerent as it seemed to outsiders, the official response to the Nobel Prize whipped up some nationalistic points for the government. It’s unlikely any such points can be won here. The US could be criticized for “interfering in China’s internal affairs” by sheltering Chen, but that invites some very risky juxtapositions between the two governments.
That leads to the most important difference with the Liu Xiaobo case: Liu was tried for a law he did actually break – a horribly unjust and poorly-defined law, yes, but still a law that’s on the books. What can the government say in Chen’s case? There’s no legal justification to point to. Chen served his time and is legally a free man.
For the past 18 months the central government has been largely able to keep its hands clean of Chen by leaving local Linyi officials to do the dirty work. But now he’s found his way to the central government’s backyard and has already begun to tell the world his story.
National leaders have some important decisions to make in how they respond to Chen, his rescuers, and his family. So far it seems they’re maintaining the status quo by tacitly approving of local authorities’ suppression. Chen’s family has already been retaliated against and his rescuer has reportedly been detained in Nanjing. The Communist Party can either live up to the rule of law it’s been trumpeting and ensure the freedom of these people, or it can make a hypocritical spectacle of itself at a time when official credibility is already hanging by a thread.