May 10, 2012
Linyi, the locus of the Chen Guangcheng controversy that put the United States and China on a collision course last week, invokes the image of poverty, isolation and obscurity. These are the qualities that shape the style of politics in a provincial backwater where local party bosses behave like dictators of their own realms, sometimes ignoring the directives from the central authority in Beijing.
Though blind since childhood, the rural rights activist Chen could find ways of advancing the cause of his fellow villagers by exploring discrepancies between Chinese law and local practices. With courage, perseverance and daring maneuvers, he has survived years of ruthless persecution by the Linyi authorities, and he ultimately triumphed. On the other hand, despite outcries on Chinese social media and years of critical attention from the Western press, Beijing has been blind on an issue that promised to eventually explode in its face.
It is important to note that Chen styles himself not as a dissident against China’s one-party rule but rather as a rights activist fighting within the confines of the existing legal system. For example, in 1994, Chen’s successful petition in Beijing forced the local authorities to comply with a 1991 tax law exempting disabled citizens. Then in 1997, he rallied legal support from Beijing to put an end to a land tax violation in his village. Even in his 2005 muckraking effort against the Linyi authorities, whose birth control campaign involved forced sterilization and abortions, Chen enjoyed the endorsement of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, a ministry-level agency that later reprimanded the Linyi officials. That time, however, Linyi party bosses punished Chen with four years of prison, followed by two years of house arrest.
In recent decades, the central government in China has sought to bolster its legitimacy among its citizens at the expense of local authorities by sometimes siding with petitioners seeking justice against local officials. Why didn’t Beijing take on Chen’s case to cast itself in a positive light?
Three elements complicated the picture. The 2005 new birth control campaign in Linyi was initiated at the provincial level. Therefore, the provincial government was expected to back up the Linyi officials’ retaliation against a trouble-maker. Secondly, after Chen’s sentencing in 2006, his Beijing lawyer brought charges against roughly 70 Linyi police officers and officials, including the deputy mayor and the head of Linyin military police, to the Supreme Court in Beijing. Any investigation from the central government would mean a face-off with the entire Linyi officialdom, a major step Beijing was unwilling to take. Thirdly, because foreign media habitually treat the Chinese state as a monolithic force bent on violating human rights, punishing the Linyi officials could be interpreted as kowtowing to foreign pressure, sending the wrong signal to Chinese citizens.
Chen’s miraculous escape from his rural captors and flight to safety in the American Embassy left Beijing a tough job of damage control. Last week, officials promised Americans that Chen would not be sent back to Linyi, where he could face even worse retaliation. This promise alone is an admission of the government’s inability to control local officials.
To make the matter worse, the activist asked to leave China once he realized he did not have the freedom promised him after leaving the U.S. Embassy compound. This again is a slap in the government’s face. Now apparently Beijing is ready to release Chen and his family to the United States, in an attempt to demonstrate to the world that the government is more open than it is perceived to be. However, to prevent such international embarrassment from reoccurring, Beijing needs to speed up its legal reform and strengthen the rule of law in China.
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