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The past few weeks have been especially embarrassing for the “rule-of-law” touting Communist Party as a blind activist (not actually charged with any crime) escaped house arrest. Well now Global Times has released a new narrative on what’s happened in Chen Guangcheng’s village over the past few years that puts the situation in a very different light.
In an op-ed entitled “Chen trump for US in human rights game,” Sima Pingbang, a “blogger and grass-roots intellectual” claims that he actually visited Chen successfully last December. This is a pretty bold claim since we were previously under the impression that no journalist had successfully broken through Chen’s guards to see him. It’s also quite strange that we haven’t heard anything of this visit until now – at a time when finding some actual wrong-doing by Chen would be very convenient for the party – which brings us to the even bolder claims of the article:
According to other villagers, Chen’s imprisonment a few years ago had nothing to do with his work. It was actually a pretty common local conflict. They told me that Chen built a deep well using funds he received from a British source. But that well sucked out water from other wells in the village, which meant Chen effectively controlled the village’s water.
They claimed that Chen charged high fees for the water and caused discontent from villagers, some of them then openly voiced their unhappiness and that angered Chen. So he asked his family members to attack the village committee and blocked public roads in order to vent his anger.
So rather than being a feeble human rights defender, the piece says Chen is a water-hoarding, price-gouging, vengeful rabble-rouser. For some reason, a British source funded a blind man’s water monopoly on a random village in Shandong.
[Update 1: Another article today from The Daily Beast mentions that there was in fact a British-funded well. It says, "After his environmental fight against the paper mill (in the late 1990s), Chen contacted Western media, diplomats, and NGOs in an effort to help improve villagers’ access to clean water. When the British Embassy agreed to bankroll a new 180-meter-deep well, Chen was proud of what his little hamlet of Dongshigu had achieved."]
Sima Pingbang, the author of the GT piece, is a somewhat famous left-wing Maoist who last year penned an essay entitled “Support American People’s Great Wall Street Revolution,” which said events in the US will herald a global revolution that will bury capitalism. It inspired some short-lived protests in support of the movement in China.
On scouring over Sima Pingbang’s Weibo tweets from the month of December, I found nothing about a visit to Chen Guangcheng’s village. When contacted about how the claims were verified for print in Global Times, op-ed section reporter Gao Lei explained that Sima Pingbang did indeed visit Dongshigu in December with two others named Liu Yang 刘仰 and Yi Qing 一清 from a “blogger association.” Gao said that the group was approved by local authorities for the visit because they said they were “not there to cause any trouble, but looking for a peaceful solution.” They then related this all to Gao Lei with some others from the association over dinner sometime after their return.
It seems that the “blogger association” (which Gao didn’t name) these men belong to is April Media 四月传媒 at m4.cn – formerly Anti-CNN.com – a nationalistic site that’s railed against Western media distortions of China since 2008. It has an English sister site called the 4th Media. All three men have written op-eds on Chen Guangcheng in the past three days (here, here and here). Yi Qing backs up the trip to Dongshigu, but Liu Yang just talks about how Chen is a sympathetic figure who’s been exploited by the West. It’s not quite in line with the conniving water baron Sima Pingbang’s article portrays.
Gao Lei also said that these men have written about their trip before, but I wasn’t able to find anything about it dated before the past few days – which is odd if they did in fact go last December.
So it seems Sima Pingbang either A) Really found a story that the entire foreign press has somehow missed, B) went to Dongshigu, actually talked with villagers and Chen Guangcheng, but was lied to – perhaps by the thugs guarding Chen – and swallowed it all wholesale, or C) made things up. Since Chen Guangcheng is gone now anyways and these new revelations, if true, would neutralize the government’s supposed wrongdoing, surely Dongshigu authorities will want these things independently verified by journalists – like those from CNN – who might try to visit the town.
[Update 2: Yaxue Cao from Seeing Red in China, who first broke the news on Chen Kegui's altercation with thugs, has informed me that Sima did go to Dongshigu with Liu and Yi, as well as Politburo member Li Yuanchao, to convince Chen to reach some kind of compromise - which he refused. This site shows that Li was in Linyi at the time, though it naturally doesn't mention anything about Chen. The presence of a Politburo member would be nothing short of incredible and would explain the others not writing about the trip earlier.
Yaxue also adeptly pointed out that, while there was indeed a British-funded well, the idea of Chen siphoning the water away from the rest of the village is stupid because of (among other things) the principle of communicating vessels.]
[Update 3: He Peirong, Chen's rescuer, has told me that Li Yuanchao never met Chen. So if Li did have any involvement with Chen, it wasn't direct.]