Human rights in China following Chen saga
Without saying so publicly, the Chinese government has surprisingly agreed to almost all requests made by blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng after he escaped from his home in Linyi, in Shandong province, to the American Embassy in Beijing.
The Chinese concessions included guaranteeing the safety of Chen and his family members and allowing him to leave Shandong to study law in any of seven universities where there are facilities for the blind. If that accord had been followed through, it would have had far-reaching consequences as it would imply that security officials are relaxing their grip on the nation.
However, we will now never know if Beijing would have faithfully fulfilled its end of the agreement since the “barefoot lawyer’’ changed his mind and now insists on going abroad, at least temporarily.
Moreover, his request for an investigation into goings-on in Shandong province ― where Chen had been put under extralegal house arrest for 19 months ― has evidently been accepted.
On Thursday, the activist reported that he was interviewed by a central government official from the letters and petition office about allegations of abuses he had made.
This is a big step forward. Even though the central authorities were certainly not ignorant of what was going on in Shandong, it now appears that local officials who engaged in blatantly illegal behavior may have to pay a price.
Local officials were so brutal that they left Chen’s wife with a fractured eye socket and broken ribs.
An official narrative, distancing the central government from local officials, has appeared in a number of media reports.
For example, the Global Times, affiliated with the official People’s Daily, carried an article on May 3 on Chen that acknowledged “today’s China has some loopholes in grass-roots governance.’’
“There are systems and laws in China,’’ it said, “but the sense of the law at the grass-roots level is still weak.’’
But, of course, the behavior of security personnel at the local level is a reflection of policies and decisions in Beijing. And the man sitting atop the country’s security apparatus is Zhou Yongkang, a member of the Politburo’s standing committee.
He certainly should be made to bear responsibility, but it is unlikely that he will be publicly rebuked since he is scheduled to step down anyway in a few months due to his age. But the Chen saga should be a reminder to his successor that the center must never allow things in the provinces to go too far.
In a broader sense, the center created circumstances in the provinces that led to abuses.
For one thing, the central government has for several decades been focused on economic development and social stability and was willing to have local officials ride roughshod over anyone seen as an obstacle to these objectives.
Thus, local officials were given a free hand regarding the means as long as the ends were achieved. This in a sense created warlord mentalities in the provinces, with local leaders doing whatever they saw as necessary, with concepts such as legality and human rights pretty much swept aside.
The result of the Chen investigation should be made public, as Chen himself has requested. The findings ought to be a wake-up call both for the central government and for the localities.
As Chen said in his appeal to Premier Wen Jiabao, it is necessary for the people to be given “a clear answer’’ whether illegal behavior was the responsibility only of local party officials or had been “ordered by the central government.’’
And, Chen pointed out, if the central authorities continue to ignore such grave local issues, “what will people think?’’
It is true, as Global Times has said, that there is no shortcut to human rights. Instead, improvement of human rights is a process that requires strenuous efforts and cannot be imposed by foreigners.
The United States is sensitive to this. That is why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "Mr. Chen has a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future," making it clear that American diplomats merely played a facilitating role.
That said, it is important for China’s leaders to keep their eyes focused on improving human rights as the country develops, rather than seeing it only as a long-term goal which, in the meantime, is of little importance or, worse, even an obstacle. That, unfortunately, seems too often to have been the attitude of officials both in Beijing and in the provinces.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. Email the writer at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1.