Most analysts agree that given the party’s rigid hierarchy, little goes on that central government authorities are not fully aware of, and largely condone. But the rulers in Beijing also give local officials a wide degree of autonomy, including how to handle critics and stifle those considered troublemakers. And central leaders seem reluctant to intervene in local matters until problems escalate into full-blown crises that they cannot ignore.
Chen’s supporters, including in the international community, have complained long and loudly that he was being confined illegally by plainclothes armed thugs in his farmhouse in Dongshigu village in Shandong province. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others regularly raised Chen’s case with senior Chinese officials. And when actor Christian Bale was roughed up trying to visit Chen in December, central government censors knew enough about the case to black out the story on the CNN broadcast here.
“There’s no way they could have ignored it,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior Asia researcher based in Hong Kong for the group Human Rights Watch. “Because they want deniability, they delegate it to the local authorities.”
After years of international criticism of its human rights record, China’s rulers now seem to be allowing local authorities to take the lead in silencing critics, sometimes through spurious legal charges, large fines and lengthy jail sentences, and often through other extrajudicial means, such as house arrests and “disappearances.”
In the case of renowned artist and activist Ai Weiwei, for example, it is the Beijing municipal tax authority that has brought charges against him for alleged tax evasion involving a company he controls.
In Chen’s case, the local authorities behaved so crudely that his plight last year attracted the attention of Beijing’s Global Times newspaper, which is owned by the party and largely echoes the official line. “It is reported that both individuals and media were prevented from visiting [Chen] by local authorities,” the paper wrote in an Oct. 12 editorial. “Whether this is true and whether such measures are legal, there needs to [be] more reliable information released by local governments.”
Likewise, central government authorities, with state-run media parroting the party line, have depicted Bo Xilai’s case as an isolated incident. They have said the party’s central disciplinary committee, in charge of enforcing rules on more than 80 million party members, is investigating Bo for “serious violations,” reportedly including corruption and abuse of power.