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Chen’s Flight and Social Unrest in Rural China

For those unfamiliar with Chen Guangcheng, he is a prominent Chinese dissident from the coastal region of Shangdong. Born in 1971, Chen was blind from an early age and is self-taught in the law. Chen achieved prominence as a “barefoot” lawyer campaigning for poor rural people, and against pollution, mistreatment of the disabled, and the more brutal aspects of the enforcement of China’s “One Child” laws. In 2005 he was beaten by local officials, subjected to house arrest, and he was jailed in 2006. After a shoddy excuse of a trial, he was convicted of sundry offences, jailed until 2010 and then returned to house arrest, where local authorities took extraordinary measures to harass and isolate the civil rights campaigner and his family. In April 2012, he escaped his house and fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Chen Guangcheng will be expectedly fading out of the media spotlight. In May, 2012, Chen, his wife and two children were granted U.S Visas. The Chinese blind legal activist is focusing on his study at the moment with the Declaration of Independence as a textbook and, with his wife and two kids, is settling in and gradually acclimating to a new life in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York. His new home is half a world away from his native village of Dongshigu in the Shangdong Province where he had been kept under extrajudicial house arrest before his dramatic escape to Beijing for six day-sheltering in the U.S. Embassy.

Chen Escapes from Extralegal House Arrest

Chen’s flight, helped by other activists, took him to the U.S. embassy compound in late April, 2012. It immediately presented a diplomatic quandary for the U.S. government, a second yet more complicated situation less than three months after former Chongqing Police Chief, Wang Lijun sought overnight refuge at the U.S. Consulate in the southwest city of Chengdu. The case was also reminiscent of the similar story in 1989 when, right after the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square, the late dissident astrophysicist Fang Lizhi and his wife fled to the U.S. Embassy and stayed in the compound for more than a year before going to the West.

The Chen incident was more sensitive and occurred only days before the Sino-America high-level talks scheduled for early May. Given Chen’s prominence around the world and its own emphasis on principles of human rights and fundamental freedoms, the U.S. had to take unusual steps to offer him protection. However, considering more directly pressing issues such as geopolitics and trade disputes facing both countries, the U.S. government handled this tough case cautiously and deliberately lest it should overshadow the long-planned high-level meeting and jeopardize the bilateral relationship.

In fact, neither America nor China were willing to risk being caught in a clash over a single issue like Chen’s no matter how “moral”. As made clear by an American official cited in Newsweek,“The days of blowing up the relationship over a single guy are over.” Moreover, the U.S. officials were reluctant to see the American diplomatic missions in China hit with a flood of dissidents because of this incident.

After intense negotiations, the two sides hammered out a deal just before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her entourage arrived in Beijing. On May 2, after being escorted out of the Embassy by the U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke , Chen was immediately admitted to a Beijing hospital where he received treatment for a broken foot and re-joined his family for the first time since his escape. Initially, the activist considered staying in China, moving to another city and living a normal life. But, out of fear of how he and his family might be treated, Chen then changed his mind and made a dramatic plea to leave China on Clinton’s flight.

The activist’s sudden turnabout took the Americans by surprise and left them in an awkward position. Also, sharp criticism from political opponents and rights groups put heavy pressure on the U.S. officials in Beijing. After a new round of talks, agreement over Chen’s fate was reached. Then Chinese officials announced that Chen could apply for the passport as a normal citizen pursuing study abroad. Earlier, Beijing demanded an apology from the U.S. for the Chen incident and the state media even labeled Chen as “a tool and pawn for American politicians to blacken China”. To ease Chinese anger over the way America handled the event, Clinton assured the Chinese Government by calling Chen’s case “exceptional…and I do not anticipate seeing any case like this again”.

Thanks to help from Jerome Cohen, a New York University law professor who arranged a fellowship for the activist at his school, Chen was allowed to leave China for the United States on May 19th. A quarrel over the destination of the latest prominent Chinese dissident was settled after a lengthy and difficult process. Interestingly, the same NYU is busy preparing to open a brand new Shanghai campus to enroll students next year, the first jointly-run university in China.

As a self-taught legal activist, Chen, 40, has long advocated for the disabled and women’s rights. He started his legal crusade back in 1996 appealing against taxes unfairly levied on the disabled like him. Then in 2000, he successfully led villagers in a campaign against paper mill pollution in their hometown. His grassroots cause for social justice had earned him an international reputation. In 2005 Chen launched a class-action lawsuit against the local city for the alleged excessive enforcement of the one-child policy. For this lawsuit, he was first placed under house arrest and then, in August 2006, he was sentenced to four years and three months for “damaging property and organizing a mob to obstruct traffic”.

After his release from prison in September 2010, Chen remained under illegal house arrest with intense surveillance cameras and dozens of security guards who confined his movements, harassed and even beat would-be visitors. It was reported that spending on security personnel for Chen’s confinement had, unbelievably, cost local authorities millions of dollar a year. Being a media celebrity, Chen had drawn a large following including foreign media. Rights groups and the media tried to break through the blockade around his home village but most of the time they failed.

Chen’s story underscores the growing conflicts between local authorities and citizens over civil issues that eventually turn into social incidents because of abuse of power and human rights violations on the part of local governments and local law enforcement. In this case, what Chen advocated and pushed for is supposed to be within the scope of the local government mandates. Local officials are intended to help resolve disputes through litigation or coordination rather than by suppressive measures or even extralegal confinement, to maintain so-called social stability. In fact, civil disputes, as in Chen’s tale, are not even close to what officials called endangering social stability. Because of local governments’ abusive and absurd behaviors, such a civil dispute finally developed into a national embarrassment that grabbed headlines across the world for years and, in the end, almost touched off a diplomatic crisis.

A Protest ends up in an Unprecedented Free Vote

Over one thousand miles south of Chen’s home village, in a coastal fishing village of southern Guangdong Province a massive protest erupted last fall over land disputes. Due to the villagers’ commitment to solidarity, foreign media fanfare and the province’s compromise, this months-long mass movement ended with an unprecedented free election.

Starting from September 2011, hundreds of villagers of Wukan launched huge protests against low compensation for requisitioned farmland and demanded that the government punish corrupt local officials involved in land grabs. Security forces were moved in when the conflict spun out of control with a police station and cars smashed and several residents injured. In December the clash escalated after five representatives were detained, one of them dying in police custody. With local officials fleeing, rebellious villagers were blocked by a heavy police cordon.

The stand-off lasted ten days before a turnaround came. Senior provincial officials stepped in and personally negotiated a deal with protest leaders. The province conceded that villagers had legitimate grievances and allowed them to elect a new village committee. Interestingly enough, back in 1920s, the same region where Wukan is situated saw several massive peasant uprisings and the first Soviet regime in China led by a young charismatic Communist named Peng Pai, who was arrested and executed by the Chiang Kai-shek Government in August 1929.

The fact that over six thousand residents freely cast their ballots on March 3 to select new chiefs and to end decades of official corruption was pioneering in respect of grassroots democracy in China. The vote was extolled by liberal media and pro-democracy activists as the “Wukan model”, but many others were cautious about the replication of this model any time soon in other regions given the complexity and diversity of the country.

The Wukan event proves more instructive of pragmatic thinking in terms of interaction of different concerned parties. First, the villagers chose smart strategies. Rather than challenging the Party’s leadership, they insisted on punishing corrupt chiefs and demanded fair compensation and a new election. That left room for both sides to compromise. The right tactics also helped protesters combat the mudslinging from regional officials who deliberately blamed villagers for inciting a riot in collaboration with hostile foreign media and organizations.

Seen as a key player behind the deal, Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang, a renowned reformist leader, was credited for his restraint and flexibility in tackling this massive event. When asked about the election, however, Wang carefully played down the importance saying that it was only a practice in accordance with the law. In responding to protesters’ petitions, in late April, authorities punished twenty local officials and former village chiefs accused of embezzling the village property.

Significant international media presence exerted huge pressure on authorities. Due to its proximity to Hong Kong, Wukan drew a large foreign press attention, especially Hong Kong media, with reporters who were stationed in the village for several months to cover this massive event. Yet, apart from official news releases, China’s state media (including some outspoken provincial papers) had few reports on Wukan until the compromise was reached between the government and villagers. In defiance of censorship, social media networks were abuzz with the posts about Wukan and microblogging served as a forum to attract a huge number of ‘netizens’ who echoed the protesters and offered support for their cause.

Governance issue behind social unrest

Chen’s flight and the Wukan protests highlight a deepening governance crisis and worsening relationship between local officials and villagers in rural areas. In particular, residents fighting for proper compensation for requisitioned land have developed into an explosive issue that undermines the social environment. According to Yu Jianrong, a prominent Chinese rural issue expert, land disputes accounted for 65% of all mass incidents which is a special term used to refer to protests, riots and strikes in China. In 2010, there were estimated 180,000 mass incidents.

Over the past twenty years, an urbanization drive has fuelled a development boom resulting in masses of land seizures, evictions and demolitions especially in the countryside. Villagers are forced to leave the land their families have lived on for generations without being fairly compensated as local officials sell the land to developers for profit, keeping the huge difference between requisition and purchase prices as a main source of government revenue or as their private money.

After the failure of repeated appeals and complaints to the higher regional or even the central government, many people have had no choice but to take matters into their own hands by resorting to radical resistance or massive protests. The confrontation usually ends either with violent suppression or more revolts.

In this regard, the flawed system should be blamed. Given no real, effective political checks and balances, too much power is falling into the hands of local officials who inevitably have control of a ruling apparatus with a final say over matters from family planning to the land requisition. This leads to rampant corruption and abuse of power, particularly in the current market-based economic age. In Wukan, for example, the village Party secretary, supported by patronage networks, held the same position and controlled local affairs for over forty years until the uprising.

An election without popular basis is also attributed to a governance problem. China had passed a law in 1998 for election of village committees, which are the grassroots governing bodies in rural areas, but voters’ concerns are often ignored in the campaign processes. In the end, election results are compromised because of control by Party officials or by manipulation from local interest groups. In terms of citizens’ involvement, the Wukan vote can be seen as an exceptional success. In the long run, its experience may provide a road map for grassroots elections and also a practical option for governments at all levels as a mechanism to cope with social unrest if they have political courage and wisdom.

A once-a-decade transition of China’s leadership will be finalized at the Party Congress that is scheduled for the autumn of 2012. Among the priorities at the convention scheduled for this coming fall is how to tackle the social unrest that will be continuously challenging the next leaders. The macro-environment seems substantially changed as domestic economic increases are slowing down, social disparities are growing, geopolitical tensions are escalating and global financial woes are continuing.

Yet these high profile cases and the Wukan compromise in particular, are expected to produce certain useful frames of reference for the authorities in responding to social disturbances in this demanding situation. In July, the top leadership finally gave the nod to Guangdong province, praising its innovative approach to resolving the Wukan villagers’ revolt. Their statement has been interpreted as a signal that an alternative to hard-line responses will be recommended. “I hope Guangdong … continue to provide more fresh experience in innovating concepts of maintaining social stability for the rest of the country,” said one senior party leader.

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Weixin Lu
Weixin Lu is a Toronto-based freelance writer with a focus on China and East Asia issues.