If you didn't know about Chen Guangcheng last week, chances are you do today. The blind activist's daring and improbable escape from house arrest has drawn attention to his plight, as well as to that of Chinese dissidents in general.
Feigning illness for weeks, Chen convinced his minders he was too weak to move. He was then able to evade his captors and scale the wall of his compound under the cloak of night, escaping the clutches of hundreds of guards at eight separate checkpoints on his way from Shandong province to Beijing.
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The news today is that he has left the US Embassy, where he was believed to be sheltered since his escape last week, and transitioned to a medical facility in Beijing. China has reprimanded the US for taking him in, and demanded an apology. The stakes could not be higher, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Beijing for high-level bilateral talks later this week.
To help place Chen's case within the broader picture of human rights in China, GlobalPost spoke with Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The situation in which dissidents find themselves in China is worsening and fast, according to Kine. What China needs to do to change that is hardly rocket science, he says, but neither is it likely to happen at this juncture.
GlobalPost: How does the case of Chen Guangcheng fit into the larger picture of human rights in China?
Phelim Kine: There have been important improvements in basic human rights in China over the last 20-30 years. Chinese people can now travel outside the country. Private property is now enshrined in law. Human rights and the state’s responsibility to protect human rights has also been enshrined in the constitution over the last two decades. So, rhetorically and on paper things have gotten better, and in many ways the lives of many Chinese people have improved.
But over the last five years, the human-rights environment in China has steadily deteriorated. The backsliding began in the runup to the 2008 Olympics, and has resulted in a situation which is now only getting worse. High-profile dissidents, human rights defenders and civil society activists have borne the brunt of the government’s increasingly lower tolerance for peaceful challenges to the status quo.
Two exemplars are that China is now the only country in the world with an imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Liu Xiabao. And now Chen Guangcheng — a human rights defender who acted according to the law, and who was, along with his family, grievously punished for such actions by local officials and security forces in Shandong province.
What impact is Chen's escape likely to have on the general human-rights climate in China?
Unfortunately, the reflexive stance of particularly China’s security agencies when faced with situations in which the status quo is being very publicly challenged is to lash out. And we are already seeing that happening now in the sense of several members of Chen Guangcheng's family being detained or being pursued by police. The high-profile activist Hu Jia was brought in for 24 hours of questioning. So, what we are likely seeing unfold is a widening net being thrown out by China’s security agencies looking first at Chen's immediate family and his friends and supporters who assisted Chen in his flight from unlawful detention in Shandong.
What's it going to take for the human rights situation in China to improve?
What it’s going to take is quite simple. It’s not rocket science. China has a very good and steadily improving body of laws which are gradually addressing some of the major loopholes which over the years have allowed security agencies to violate the rights and freedoms of China’s citizens at will. The bottom line is that the Chinese government needs to act on its rhetoric. The government’s mantra is, China is a country of rule of law, and that’s exactly what it’s going to take. ... It comes down to respecting the laws that are already on China’s books and respecting the rights and freedoms that are enshrined in China’s own constitution. It’s really as easy as that.
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But this is the world’s very first evolutionary Communist Party. The Chinese Communist Party has had a more than 62-year monopoly on power and one of the main tools that it has used in recent decades to maintain that control is the law, turning it into a weapon to neutralize potential sources of opposition and dissent. Until the Chinese government is willing to trade rule by law for real rule of law, people like Chen Guangcheng are going to be under threat.
Are we seeing evidence of a shift to rule of law? Is that likely in the lead-up to the power shift?
In the lead-up to sensitive events on the Chinese government’s calendar, whether it’s June 4th Tiananmen massacre anniversary or other important dates, the reflex template for the Chinese government and security forces is to clamp down. We are now in the leadup to the very important leadership transition, so unfortunately the environment — even if this Chen Guangcheng issue hadn’t come up — is and would already be extremely unfriendly to dissidents and would not lend itself to the Chinese government’s loosening up in any way.
Chen's choice of the US embassy as a place to seek refuge forces the issue between the two countries. Was that strategic on his part?
No doubt he and his supporters knew that the US government had, in many ways, been the most outspoken government with regard to his case and that overseas supporters were clustered to a large extent in the United States. So, his decision to seek refuge in the US Embassy, if in fact that is the case, was definitely strategic in that regard. The US-China relationship is probably one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships and to intentionally or unintentionally become part of the US-China discussion was a brainstroke.
The fact is that, with Chen under diplomatic protection of the US government, it lends him a level of negotiating power with the Chinese government, which he wouldn’t necessarily enjoy with other countries.
How do you see that negotiating power having an impact?
The Chinese government is dealing with a fast-moving international-level situation which threatens to, if not derail, certainly disrupt key bilateral talks planned for this week with the US government on issues such as regional security, currency and trade — issues that the Chinese government urgently wants to have its opinion aired on.
The last thing Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao wanted in the dying months of their watch was for a major embarrassing international incident, which shines a light on some of the darker realities of modern China. And they have gotten that in spades with Chen Guangcheng's escape and shelter with, quite likely, the US embassy.
Also, if Chen is at the US Embassy, the US government is his custodian under international law. The US is now in a position where it needs to respect rules of international conduct. And the fact that this is occurring in a US presidential election cycle is significant. Mitt Romney officially threw his hat in the ring yesterday in terms of making Chen Guangcheng a potential election issue.
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