BEIJING — The dramatic escape of the blind activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng, and his apparent decision to seek protection from U.S. diplomats in Beijing, has cast a spotlight on the Chinese government’s growing use of unlawful home detentions, disappearances, “black jails,” and other, often brutal, extra-judicial methods to try to silence its internal critics and stamp out dissent.
Chen’s case also poses an immediate quandary for Premier Wen Jiabao, who has repeatedly advocated strengthening the rule of law and making this authoritarian Communist regime more accountable to the people.
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.
As the Bo scandal has unfolded, China’s state-run media have repeatedly picked up Wen’s mantra, eager to show that Bo was not the subject of a political purge or personal vendetta. The Chongqing case showed that China was developing into a country where the law was paramount, according to the official refrain, and even a powerful figure such as Bo was subject to it.
“The rule of law is the foundation of the governance of the CPC and critical for realizing long-term stability,” the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s main mouthpiece, wrote in an editorial that was widely reprinted in all the state media. “Anyone who breaks the law shall be convicted and punished.”
Now Chen, through his escape and in the video, is directly using that same argument in appealing for Wen and the central government to take action against those who abused him and his family members and illegally held him captive for 19 months.
“The money of our ordinary people and the taxpayers should not be used by some local officials who break the law to hurt people or hurt the image of our party,” Chen says in his video. “Many people don’t understand whether all of these illegal acts are just law-breaking by the local party officials or whether it was ordered by the Central Committee. I think you should give a clear answer to people before long.”
While Chen was in hiding last week between various safe houses in Beijing, Michael H. Posner, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, was also in the Chinese capital, leading the American delegation to a meeting on legal issues with Chinese officials, including senior judges. Posner said afterward that the meeting touched on U.S. concerns about problems of extrajudicial punishments such as house arrest and residential surveillance.
Such techniques have expanded greatly in recent years, with extrajudicial means increasingly used as the security apparatus has expanded its power and reach, and as the country’s Communist rulers have reacted nervously to the uprisings that have challenged entrenched authoritarian regimes in the Arab world.
For example, Liu Xia, the wife of Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, was herself put under house arrest and prohibited from communicating with the outside world, even though she was not accused or convicted of any crime and although there is no such thing as “house arrest” under Chinese law.
The dissident artist Ai Weiwei was arrested last April and held for more than two months without charges, also in violation of Chinese law. He was later charged with evading taxes on a company he controls, but his supporters say he was detained for his increasing anti-government statements and posts on Twitter. His house is now regularly monitored by surveillance cameras.
The prominent human rights lawyer and activist Gao Zhisheng — who has also not been charged with any crime — repeatedly “disappeared” for lengthy periods in the hands of the security services, which admitted only in December that Gao was officially in custody.
In March, China’s rubber-stamp legislature approved changes to the country’s criminal code that will allow police to legally hold government critics for six months in secret detention centers, or “black jails.” The change essentially codified what was already a widespread practice and will apply to anyone accused of threatening “state security,” a catch-all term used to snare anyone advocating more democracy or an end to Communist Party rule.
Posner, speaking Wednesday at the U.S. Embassy after the U.S.-China legal dialogue, said some on the Chinese side seem to be moving toward the view that the country needs a credible, transparent legal system and a criminal process that is open and fair.
“It’s a recognition that to compete in the modern world, there needs to be a rules-based foundation,” Posner said. “I think there’s a demand internally, from the Chinese people. The government is undoubtedly hearing that and responding to it.”
“In the long term, I feel a sense of optimism that the trend globally . . . for a law-based, rights-based structure is going to prevail here as well,” Posner said.