“Who is Chen Guangcheng?” That must be a question some people in China are asking today. Thanks to the country’s blanket Internet censorship, millions of ordinary Chinese are unfamiliar with Chen’s name and are just now learning the long, sad story of the blind legal activist who escaped house arrest and was sheltered in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing last week.
As Newsweek’s Melinda Liu writes, Chen Guangcheng knows more than most people in China about state repression. Chen first began working in Shandong province on disabilities and farmers’ rights. His moderate success led other marginalized rural people to turn to him in their quest for justice. In 2005, villagers recruited him as a vocal advocate against officials in the Shandong city of Linyi, who had begun a brutal campaign to punish families trying to escape China’s restrictive “one-child” population-control policies.
Chen’s compelling personal story and his legal advocacy made him something of a folk hero in Shandong. And his work to set right injustices laid bare the hollowness of the Chinese Communist Party’s line that the country is governed by the rule of law.
But as the head-snapping details of Chen’s daring escape from house arrest and brutal persecution by plainclothes police in Shandong province set Twitter and international news media ablaze over the last week, Chinese state media reported … nothing.
Chen’s case is familiar to many outside China because it sharply draws the contrast between the Chinese government’s promises of a “harmonious society” and the often harsh reality of extralegal abuse of peaceful critics by Communist Party officials. But Chen’s story has for years been erased from Chinese online and print media.
That changed this week, when the Chen story became a flashpoint in U.S.-China relations.
“I never heard of him before,” a friend who follows Chinese news media said about Chen. “Chinese people really don’t know who he is. Then yesterday, this video and news appeared on Sina.com and QQ,” two major Chinese online news sites.
On Sina.com, a central news hub for millions of Chinese people, the usual mix of news is sex, food, and Chinese movie stars. Chen Guangcheng’s name is also very similar to actor Chen SiCheng (prompting a fair bit of confusion about what the actor did wrong).
But this week Chinese state media finally featured Chen Guangcheng’s name—to condemn the U.S. government for improperly holding a Chinese person in the U.S. Embassy for six days. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Weimin, rebuked the U.S. for the “abnormal” way Chen came to the U.S. Embassy and U.S. “interference,” while demanding an apology and a guarantee that such an incident will not happen again.
"China is a country ruled by laws," a female CCTV anchor read on the air. "Every citizen's rights are guaranteed by the Constitution and law. And every Chinese citizen has to obey the laws."
Which, of course, is Chen Guangcheng’s point exactly.
His determined pursuit of the rule of law and justice led to his “disappearance” by local officials, to a four-year prison term on spurious charges, to blatantly unlawful house arrest and assault by government-retained thugs, and ultimately to his quest for safety in the U.S. Embassy. His “crimes” are working to expose and right injustices in China’s evolving legal system, a goal that resonates across the country.
But Chen is not a lone actor. He represents perhaps the most important trend in China over the last two decades: ordinary citizens who know their constitutional rights, and are willing to fight doggedly for justice. This trend is called the weiquan, or “rights defense,” movement. Chen and other lawyers and activists have faced years of state brutality, chiefly for spotlighting the growing gap between government promises and reality.
In a video he posted on the Chinese-language website Boxun, Chen appeals to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to “personally intervene” by opening an investigation on his family’s confinement and on “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.”
Meanwhile, Chen’s supporters and the activists who helped him escape to Beijing have gone missing one by one, or are being put under house arrest. Chen’s wife Yuan Weijing has said she was chained to a chair for two days and threatened with beatings to pressure her to get the message to Chen he should leave the U.S. Embassy.
There has been no information in recent days regarding the status of He Peirong, a Nanjing-based activist who was detained after she helped Chen reach Beijing from Shandong. Chen Kegui, Chen Guangcheng’s nephew who also disappeared after a violent altercation with men in civilian clothes who broke into his home, may be in for the same rough treatment suffered by his uncle.
While we do not know the endgame for Chen and his courageous colleagues, it is worth recalling the fate of other would-be reformists in China. One is the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year prison sentence, while his wife, Liu Xia, has lived under house arrest since the Nobel Prize ceremony in December 2010.
Another lawyer who took cases inconvenient to the Chinese government, Gao Zhisheng, has been “disappeared” by the authorities since April 2010. There are no legal charges against Chen, Liu Xia, or Gao.
As the world focuses on the high-stakes outcomes for U.S.-China relations, the more consequential ripple effects may be in the number of Chinese citizens who—despite ongoing media censorship—will come to know the story of how a blind lawyer who has repeatedly risked his life to help desperate Chinese people fight state abuses has been brutally mistreated, and how a missing rule of law can create such a situation.
“[The] Internet has some use in a dark society,” one netizen in Chengdu messaged about Chen’s case. Indeed.
As director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, Minky Worden works with journalists to help them cover crises, wars, human rights abuses, and political developments. She also has worked in Hong Kong and at the Department of Justice as a speechwriter for the U.S. attorney general and in the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Overseas Press Club's Board of Governors, and editor of China's Great Leap and co-editor of Torture.