Activist inspires hope even as Chinese repression grows
Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY9:17a.m. EDT March 26, 2013
(Photo: Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY)
DONGSHIGU, China — Wang Jinxiang, 79, the mother of blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, may not appear to be a threat to Chinese national security.
But on Thursday, the day of her birthday lunch, eight government officials in two cars showed up to seize two grandmothers who had cited Chen as the inspiration in their fight for compensation for houses demolished by authorities. The intrusion was little better than the one on her 78th birthday, when government-hired thugs shoved her to the ground when she tried to leave her home to buy food. She hit her head on a door as she fell.
Chen’s spectacular escape in April 2012 from his village to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing began a 27-day standoff between the United States and China that ended in Chen, 41, his wife and two children being granted asylum in New York City.
Chen’s family and admirers in China are paying the price for the worldwide headlines he generated when he slipped past the illegal 24-hour surveillance he was under for exposing forced abortions in his province. Chinese authorities spend more money every year on spying on and harassing people who confront the policies of the unelected communist regime.
Such efforts are termed "maintenance stability," a euphemism for heavy-handed police work and repression that is a hallmark of the political system that locked Chen up for years. It is eating a major chunk of cash as Communist Party officials nationwide target people like Chen and those he has inspired.
Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on May 31.(Photo: Seth Wenig, AP)
China spends billions of dollars each year to watch China’s citizens nationwide and stop them linking up to defend their legal rights. This month, China’s parliament, which approves all measures put before it by the top leaders, approved $124 billion for domestic security in 2013. Such security includes surveillance and harassment of activists and represents the third year that spending on perceived domestic threats has exceeded the military budget.
Chen, studying law at New York University, says it cost Beijing almost $11 million to keep only him locked up in the Chinese countryside.
"I am confident change will come to China," Chen said in a Skype interview Thursday with USA TODAY. "Not from the government but from the masses who are taking action every day to change China."
But the targeting of Chinese who stand up for themselves against the wishes of Beijing is growing rather than ebbing.
Wang Rulan, 72, and Wei Lanyue, 63, found that out when they left their village Thursday for the 30-mile trip to the home of Chen’s grandmother in Dongshigu village in Shandong province in east China. The officials who dragged them from Wang’s birthday lunch called for police to come and investigate a USA TODAY reporter interviewing the women and tried to open the doors of the reporter’s departing car and jump in.
"We’ve never met Chen Guangcheng, but he has helped us so much," says Wang, whose home was demolished in 2007 without compensation.
Chen is well known here to party bosses who, like bosses in many provinces, take actions that residents have little recourse to oppose. In the 1990s, Chen, a self-taught lawyer, petitioned Beijing to stop authorities in his village from seizing land from farmers to lease to others at high prices, which he said was illegal. He organized villagers from dozens of communities to successfully stop a paper mill from polluting waterways.
In 2004, he sued for the public release of village records on spending, and in 2005, he filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of women from Linyi against the city’s family planning staff over forced abortions and sterilizations. In 2006, Chen was sentenced to four years and three months for "organizing a mob to disturb traffic." Upon his release, he was forced to remain in his home, surrounded by floodlighting and surveillance.
"He’s so impressive, a disabled man doing rights’ defenders work and suffering so much. He taught us to persist in safeguarding our legal rights until the end," Wang says. "Everybody knows about Chen Guangcheng in our area, but some people, to this day, still don’t dare talk about him openly."
The government officials who returned Wang and Wei to their home village Thursday accused them of "betraying China" by discussing their situation with a foreign reporter, Wang says.
Other residents of the Linyi area describe Chen’s daring and sincerity.
"For those of us living in the dark, he offers a gleam of light and some hope, although his path is more arduous than any," says Lu Qiumei, 33, whose house was demolished in Linyi city in 2010.
Five relatives, including Lu, were subsequently beaten. Lu shares information and advice over the Internet on how to petition or sue the government.
The Linyi city government claims to have stopped all petitioners in the past five years from going to Beijing to register their complaints about the government and judiciary. Officials are judged, and promoted accordingly, by their success in meeting such targets, yet both Wang and Lu have made multiple trips to Beijing in that time period and say Linyi officials pay bribes to keep their petitioning records off the books in Beijing.
For Chen’s family, the hope of even a brief family reunion appears dim.
"He can’t come back to China, it’s still not safe for him," Wang says. "I want to visit him in the USA while my body is still able to take the journey, as maybe I can’t in the future, but authorities won’t issue us passports."
The refusal is a cruel but common tactic of official revenge. The Tiananmen Square student leader Wu’er Kaixi, who escaped from China and lives in Taiwan, has waited in vain since 1989 for his parents to be granted passports so they can travel from China to see him.
For four days after his dramatic, wall-climbing escape in April 2012, Wang had to act normal as if Chen was still in their house and stifle her tears.
"I was worried he would be caught and beaten to death," she says. "Now I get so anxious if he doesn’t call for two days. When I hear his voice, I am at ease."
On the night of her 78th birthday a year ago, Wang says, she cried as she argued with the guards to leave their front gate open.
"If it was shut, my son’s soul couldn’t come home to bless me," says Wang of her second son, one of five, who had recently died of illness.
This year, Wang enjoyed a happier birthday. Though she turned 79, well-wishers celebrated her 80th year, an auspicious milestone. Traditionally minded Chinese count newborns as 1-year-olds. She had Skype chat with Chen, her youngest son.
The dozens of government–paid thugs who once dominated Dongshigu left last June after years of abusing the Chen family and visitors. Some villagers who double as government spies still keep watch, says Chen Guangfu, Wang’s eldest son and Chen’s older brother.
"I don’t believe China has a law forbidding a person from going to a friend’s house for lunch," Chen Guangfu says. "This shows how China must change. It’s ridiculous that China spends so much of its capability on catching such people," when the petitioning they often perform is legal.