Though Chen Guangcheng, the visually challenged Chinese activist would have felt relieved on reaching the US with his wife and daughter, the entire episode has raised many questions. How do the dissidents survive in China? And how are they treated by the State?
Who is Chen Guangcheng?
Chen is a visually challenged Chinese lawyer from Shandong province. He rose to prominence after he exposed and campaigned against the forced abortions/sterilisations practiced under China’s one child policy. He was later accused of disrupting traffic and damaging property and was jailed from 2006 to 2010. However, he refused to abandon his campaigns even after such accusations.
Consequently, he and his family were ill treated and physically harassed. He was then placed under house arrest. His activities earned him the reputation of a dissident within China, while at the same time he became an ‘international celebrity.’ Chen managed to escape his house arrest in April 2012 in Shandong and after staying with some friends sought asylum at the US Embassy.
The timing of his escape to the US embassy coincided with the Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED). The Chinese state accused the US of interfering in its internal issues and even demanded an apology for providing refuge to Chen. The US officials and diplomats including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were also stern and demanded his safety in China. In her press release Hillary Clinton, stated that ‘the United States’ Government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Mr. Chen and his family in the days, weeks, and years to come.’ However, Chen left the American embassy right before the scheduled meet. Reports suggest that there was a deal between US and China about providing him safety as long as he stays in China and also a study visa to the US. However, amidst the rising uproar within China the S&ED was successfully held. During the two day meet Hillary Clinton refrained from mentioning Chen directly, but did talk about the ‘universal rights that belong to every human being.’
Situation of Dissidents in China
Post-dialogue, Chen and his family were constantly in news for either being harassed in China or regarding their pleas to the US to give them asylum. Finally, after much deliberation, Chen and his family were given a visa to the US. However, his extended family was harassed after his departure. His brother Chen Guangfu and his nephew Chen Kegui were beaten up by police officials. One can assess the extent of surveillance on Chen by the fact that even after he had escaped his village there were guard posts, high-voltage street lamps, cameras and security personnel all over the village. These were removed after he reached the US which led to a sigh of relief in his village where people could now lead a life without surveillance.
Significantly, Chen is not the only dissident who has undergone such mistreatment. Almost all other dissidents were framed under false charges and arrested or harassed even after immense international pressure. Liu Xiabo’s (a key leader in the Tiananmen Square protest) family, relatives, friends and supporters were prevented from leaving China soon after he was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2010. Gao Zhisheng, a lawyer who fought for evicted homeowners, victims of medical malpractice, and for other causes, was jailed for ‘inciting subversion’, tortured in detention and was also the target of an assassination attempt. He went missing in 2009, only to reappear and announce that he has given up campaigning for the sake of his family. A year later he went missing again in Xinjiang and in 2011 he was again jailed for three years. Ni Yulan protested against people evicted from their homes during the Beijing Olympics. She was jailed, beaten and disbarred, and her house was bulldozed. She was put on trial in 2011 and soon after her husband was framed under false charges and jailed.
To conclude, dissent of any kind against the Communist Party of China or the Chinese state is dealt with an iron hand. With the revision of China’s Criminal Procedure Law on the fourth day of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, a new legislation has been unveiled which gives police the power to make arbitrary detentions. The draft law states that suspects accused of subversion and other security charges can be detained without their families being notified. This has further strengthened the authorities to clamp down people from raising any voice against the Chinese state.