How the party’s PR apparatus could respond to Chen Guangcheng

Posted: April 28, 2012 in Politics
Tags: ,

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


  1. MAC says:

    I was hoping that Chen hadn’t received any foreign funding, but unfortunately I did a little searching and apparently he did, which the local government made a big deal about back in 2006. I pretty much expect the standard “westerners prop up and applaud China’s so-called ‘dissidents’ and focus on the misdeeds of a few bad apples while ignoring the fact that the CCP has brought hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty in the last 30 years. The Americans should get rid of their Cold War mindset and focus on solving their own problems.”

    • sinostand says:

      Yes, Chen has been foreign supported and the group that rescued him is definitely foreign-backed. But what can they really be blamed for? Chen isn’t Liu Xiaobo or Ai Weiwei – who railed directly against the central government and the political system. Chen fought legal battles with local officials over forced abortions and sterilizations – which are illegal. And Chen is legally a free man now, so how can foreigners be blamed for helping a free (blind) man take a trip to Beijing? Doing so risks making the leadership look like buffoons.

      I suspect you’re right and we might see something in Global Times about “hyping the case” or “neglecting the progress China has made.” But if that’s the official line and the hammer comes down hard on the “Western anti-China forces” I’ll be surprised. But then, I’m trying to take a logical approach here. The government has shown it’s quite adept at circumventing logic and deflecting blame in any way possible, so we’ll see.

  2. alsharp1 says:

    Wow! The questions that are raised by this affair are endless…is there a debate going on between the hardliners and the reformers as to how to deal with this? Is there even a hardline faction capable of wielding any influence now, after the Bo Xilai imbroglio? Is the Party’s relative lightness of touch in the way it defused the Wukan protests a sign of its heightened sensitivity, and is a similarly conciliatory outcome even possible, when the US is involved?

    I have no idea. More than ever at the moment, Chinese politics is like watching dogs fighting under a rug, and I’m awaiting the outcome with bated breath.

    What particularly interests me is, can/will the Party put a shrill, nationalist spin on things, and if so, would anyone actually buy it? The fact that Chen has hot-footed it to the US embassy is a very provocative statement, but I have suspicions of that the Party cannot play the thin-skinned nationalism card with as much resonance as it used to be able to. It might just be the impression I’ve got from the Chinese people I know, and perhaps unrepresentative comments I’ve seen translated on ChinaSMACK taking potshots at corrupt officials and censorship…but I get the distinct feeling that the average Zhou is a lot less willing to swallow whatever the propaganda machine tells him these days, and is increasingly finding the CPC’s excesses and indiscretions unpalatable.

    • MAC says:

      Wow, the delayed response on this is making me think it’s really a big deal. Even the English-language Chinese media is still in “pretend nothing is happening” mode. Maybe they’re hoping that with officials on both sides under wraps, the international media would lose the story over the weekend and they can keep it quiet.

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