HONG KONG — As the diplomatic storm around Chen Guangcheng calms, supporters and relatives of the blind activist fear a tempest of retribution, a frequent feature of Communist Party crisis management known as “settling accounts after the autumn harvest.”
The ruling party, which has had a monopoly on power since 1949, has a long history of punishing not just those who challenge or embarrass it but also their families and friends. At least half a dozen people have been detained for questioning over their role in Chen’s escape from house arrest in Shandong province on April 22 and his six-day stay at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. In addition, a Chinese lawyer who tried last week to visit Chen at a Beijing hospital said he was severely beaten by police and is under constant surveillance. Others have been visited by security agents and ordered to keep quiet and to stay away from Chen’s hospital ward.
But nearly all of those who got picked up in an initial sweep, including He Peirong, a female activist who helped transport Chen to Beijing, have been released, with warnings to watch their step. That suggests that authorities have perhaps stepped back from, or at least deferred, a full-scale campaign of retribution. He, also known as “Pearl,” was detained in Nanjing, where she lives, on April 27, and she sent a text message a week later saying she had been allowed to return home.
“The autumn harvest is not finished yet, so the settling of accounts hasn’t really started,” said Bob Fu, an exiled Chinese activist who runs a group called ChinaAid. From his base in Texas, Fu helped engineer Chen’s flight from Shandong, a heavily rural and acutely conservative province in eastern China.
Chen had been under house arrest there since 2010, an extra-legal detention ordered by local officials infuriated by his efforts to challenge their use of forced abortions and other measures through the courts. Chen’s escape, and his ability to evade authorities in Beijing as he moved between safe houses before taking refuge with U.S. diplomats, was a major embarrassment to China’s vast security apparatus, which, according to official budget figures, gets more funding each year than China’s military.
American officials have come under withering criticism, particularly from political foes of President Obama, for their handling of the Chen saga. Under a tentative deal struck Friday during a visit to Beijing by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.S. diplomats say they believe Chinese authorities will allow the self-taught lawyer to study law in New York. Chen, however, has voiced growing alarm about the fate of his family and those who assisted him.
“He is most worried about my safety, He Peirong’s safety and that of other friends who helped him escape from illegal detention in Shandong,” read a Twitter-like message posted by Guo Yushan, a friend who was involved in Chen’s flight and was seized by police late on April 27 for several days of questioning. He, too, is now free.
Chen, meanwhile, has pleaded for security forces to leave family members still in Shandong alone, including his mother and brothers. A nephew, Chen Kegui, is missing and thought to have been arrested. He reportedly attacked and injured security officers who rushed into his father’s house and started beating those inside on the night of April 26. A Shandong lawyer, Liu Weiguo, was threatened by local security agents after he offered to defend the nephew, according to Chen.
“I want to appeal for my nephew,” said Chen in a telephone interview from Beijing’s Chaoyang hospital Sunday. “He injured those people because they raided his house without any permission. He acted in self-defense.” Chen said his mother, whose movements had been restricted, is “at home and can go out freely. But her heart is traumatized seriously.”
Chen’s wife, Yuan Weijing, who was allowed to travel to Beijing as part of an initial deal struck by Chinese and American diplomats that led to his departure from the U.S. Embassy last Wednesday, has said that before she left the family home in Shandong’s Dongshigu village to join her husband, she had been tied to a chair and repeatedly threatened by club-waving security goons.
Jiang Tianyong, a human rights lawyer in Beijing, said in a telephone interview that he got pounced on by plainclothes officers while trying to visit Chen at the hospital last week. He said he was dragged to an unmarked car by about 10 men and taken to a hotel in the capital’s Haidian district and beaten. One of the officers, he said, “suddenly jumped at me and punched me hard three times, on my left ear, my right ear and my chest.” Fearing his hearing had been damaged, he asked to see a doctor.
Instead, according to his account of events, the officers stripped off his jacket and shirt and turned on the air conditioner full blast, with one of them telling him that “you have broken our bottom line” by talking with foreign media about Chen’s case. “It is not a small incident. It is a big incident,” Jiang quoted a security officer as saying. He was eventually released and allowed to go home, but his apartment building is being closely monitored. “There is a car parked downstairs with five or six people in it,” Jiang said.
Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, said those who have been targeted by security forces in connection with Chen’s flight to the U.S. Embassy are victims of “the default reaction when something big happens: a big freeze aimed above all at information control and preventing unexpected developments.” Any more serious “payback,” he added, “will come later, as part of a package of measures designed to prevent the repetition of a similar incident.”
That is what happened after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, when thousands were rounded up and sent to jail for their roles in a pro-democracy movement the party termed a “counterrevolutionary rebellion.”
Fang Lizhi, an astrophysicist targeted in June 1989 for arrest and possible execution, escaped punishment by taking refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He remained there for more than a year before being allowed to leave China, first for Britain and later the United States, where he taught physics. He died at 76 last month at his home in Tucson.
The current backlash, said Bequelin, is more akin to the party’s response to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 to Liu Xiaobo, a dissident literary critic serving an 11-year sentence for “subversion.” Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, who was placed under house arrest at the time of the award, is missing. “Everyone was ‘grounded,’ ” Bequelin said, “but ultimately, the party basically decided no one was to be punished” with formal prosecution for Liu’s Nobel Prize.
Ongoing efforts by authorities to regain control of the flow of information have led to stepped up pressure on foreign journalists. The Foreign Correspondents Club in Beijing reported that about a dozen accredited foreign reporters who had made visits to the hospital where Chen is recuperating were summoned Friday to the visa department of the Public Security Bureau. They were told that they needed permission to report there, the correspondents club said, and were warned that their visas would be revoked if they “break this rule again.”
Correspondent Keith Richburg and researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.