18th Party Congress Watch (9)
Gao Wenqian, HRIC Senior Policy Advisor
This has been an eventful year for China—great shows one after another. The Bo Xilai affair has yet to wind down when blind rights activist Chen Guangcheng managed to escape right under the authorities’ watch. Chen even used a video to ask Premier Wen Jiabao for three things: 1) punish, in accordance with the law, those who had committed crimes against him and his family, 2) ensure the safety of his family, and 3) thoroughly investigate corruption involving funds for stability maintenance. Like a single stone causing a thousand ripples, the incident has attracted close attention from Chinese civil society and the international media and will have a huge political impact in China.
Chen’s escape from illegal house arrest has a greater significance than highlighting a case of human rights abuse. It is bound to aggravate the power struggle within the Party before the 18th Party Congress and affect Sino-American relations. The latest word is that Chen is currently “in an absolutely safe place,” presumed to mean the U.S. Embassy in Beijing even though the U.S. Embassy has said “No Comment.” Furthermore, Chen's escape occurred just before the U.S.–China Strategic and Economic Dialogue to be held on May 3-4 in Beijing. In this light, Chen has become a second Fang Lizhi,1 an unavoidable problem in Sino-American relations.
Chen Guangcheng is an expression of China’s conscience. He has long been a defender of rights at the grassroots in Shandong. He sacrificed himself and his family to save his fellow villages from suffering, and harbors no regrets for doing so. According to Chen’s good friend and fellow activist, Hu Jia, Chen has made it clear that he does not wish to leave China, which is truly admirable. That the Chinese authorities could so severely restrict the movements of this blind man who had served his sentence in full and was already free is completely illegal and inhumane. Chen’s house arrest has ignited the anger of Chinese civil society and been denounced by the international community.
Chen Guangcheng’s escape highlights the bankruptcy of the Chinese authorities’ stability maintenance model as it now exists. That Chen, a blind man, could escape from under their strict control and through the cordons of guards surrounding his home is a great mockery of the stability maintenance system. The authorities have expended vast amounts to construct this big net of stability maintenance, yet it is full of flaws, with holes so large that they were unable to keep a blind man from escaping. This is a major blow to the stability maintenance faction within the system, and is bound to open fierce debate in the higher echelons of the CPC regarding the path and method of China’s development from this point forward.
At the same time, Chen Guangcheng’s escape is a great inspiration for the struggle of civil society against the government. But we should not be too optimistic. China is at a historical crossroads and the authorities can choose between two paths: The first is to take this opportunity to thoroughly make a fresh start, abandon stability maintenance, promote political reform, and fundamentally solve the problems in society accumulated over the past years. The second is to refuse to come to their senses and follow the path to darkness: agitated by Chen's escape, the authorities could escalate stability maintenance measures and further strengthen the system, and use even harsher methods to suppress civil society. Let us wait and see which path they will choose.
1. Fang Lizhi, a Chinese astrophysicist from Hefei, walked into the U.S. Embassy in Beijing one day after the June 4, 1989 military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests. He stayed there until June 1990 when he was permitted to leave China. ^