Chen escaped on a moonless night about a week ago from 19 months under a de facto form of house arrest, with his farmhouse in Dongshigu village surrounded by gangs of armed men with no legal authority to keep him there. Chen had already served more than four years in prison on charges — largely considered bogus — of “obstructing traffic.”
The men who kept Chen contained in his farmhouse, who he says beat him and his wife, and who harassed journalists and activists trying to see him were operating as an extrajudicial force, with no official standing. But they were clearly doing the bidding of local party bosses who wanted to keep Chen silenced and isolated.
When Chen escaped, climbing over a high wall and walking hours alone at night to evade detection, the blind activist had not been linked to any crime. And members of the activist network who assisted Chen — driving him to Beijing, shuttling him around to avoid capture — also were not committing crimes, since Chen was not charged with anything. Yet police have been rounding them all up.
Chen made a video that was broadcast on YouTube, directly appealing to Wen to take action against those who he says abused him and his family, to protect his family and to investigate corruption in Linyi city, which oversees his village.
By appealing personally to Wen, Chen was deftly avoiding the accusation, often used against dissidents in China, that he was “subverting state authority.” To the contrary, Chen was pointing the finger at abusive, corrupt local officials and calling on the premier — a self-styled reformist — to assert the power of the state over the local government and over a security apparatus that many critics feel has run amok.
“Chen Guangcheng’s escape is really the most visceral example of the lack of rule of law in China and the really out-of-control abuses of the security agencies,” said Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher for the group Human Rights Watch. “Chen Guangcheng’s case is going to definitely reveal the reality of Wen Jiabao and his longtime advocacy for protection of the poor, the marginalized and the abused, and the application of the rule of law.”
Since March 14, when Wen appeared at a lengthy news conference at the close of the national legislature, the premier has been forcefully advocating a reform agenda, including the importance of establishing a law-based society in China.
That news conference was followed by the sudden ouster of once-rising star Bo Xilai from his job as the Communist Party chief in Chongqing, and then by Bo’s removal from the Party Central Committee and the Politburo. Bo is being investigated for “severe violations” of the party’s disciplinary rules, and his wife, Gu Kailai, is suspected, along with a Bo household aide, in the slaying of a British businessman.