I have known Chen Guangcheng for almost a decade. We met as participants in the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program in 2003. It brought us both to the United States but also brought us together in our common interests and mission for China.
After our return to China, I put Chen in touch with a number of lawyers and intellectuals involved in human rights work and introduced him to veteran activist Liu Xiaobo. Back then, the three of us still enjoyed a certain degree of freedom. We were able to sit down together, as we did one morning in a bookstore near Beijing University, talking and exchanging ideas for hours.
How things have changed. Today, Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is serving an 11-year prison sentence. Unrelenting abuse and threats from state security forces sent me into exile to the United States in January. And barely four months later, Chen Guangcheng has made the same journey. Our three fates should remind the world that, contrary to myths and assumptions, economic liberalization and development will not inevitably lead to corresponding political liberalization and development. Economic power has only reinforced an increasingly absurd state power in China.
Rapid growth has transformed China’s party-state into the world’s wealthiest regime, thereby providing endless funds for “maintaining stability,” a pleasant-sounding euphemism for crushing dissent. The official Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reported that government expenses on “stability maintenance” totaled about $110 billion last year, more than even the defense budget. State expenditures targeting Chen alone reportedly ran into the millions per year, producing a rare growth industry in rural Shandong: monitoring Chen and blocking visitors to his home became the most promising career path for locals. Representing a similar mind-set, the police chief responsible for monitoring my life in Beijing once told me, “Since you moved here, our district has been able to enjoy millions in stability maintenance funds.” He did not see me as a threat or even a nuisance. He just saw me as a means of making money. As ridiculous as it sounds, this is the reality of China today.
China’s economic development over the past decade has refocused resources toward state control. State-owned enterprises have relied on monopolization and connections to realize rapid growth, while private enterprises have faced increasing policy restrictions. State-owned enterprises are not, in fact, state-owned but the private enterprises of well-connected princelings. Each important family in the senior leadership has its industrial fiefdom: former premier Li Peng’s family controls the power and coal industries; the family of former president Jiang Zemin controls telecommunications; the family of former premier Zhu Rongji is involved in finance. Premier Wen Jiabao’s family is involved in the jewelry trade. The average citizen, by contrast, has not derived similar benefits even after decades of economic growth: The gap between rich and poor continues to grow, and social inequality has become increasingly stark.
Furthermore, the abuse that Chen and his family have faced in recent years shatters another myth about today’s China: that while local officials are often corrupt and abusive, the central government is inherently good. Chen’s persecution was not simply a local matter.
We cannot imagine that Dongshigu officials somehow hid their handling of Chen’s case from virtuous central leaders: The international media have reported on Chen’s persecution for years. Beijing’s tacit consent eventually developed into direct support after Chen’s escape: Those who aided his flight from illegal detention have been detained. Such a widespread crackdown, from Nanjing to Beijing, could have been implemented only on orders from the central government.
In effect, the central government and local officials have taken each other hostage in the name of “maintaining stability.” Beijing has placed the burden of stability on local officials, who can face serious punishment from above for outspoken petitioners and activists in their jurisdiction. So local officials are willing to do almost anything to “deal with” people like Chen, rather than addressing the issues he and others raise. The central government then not only condones but also enables such behavior. Even as abuse of Chen made headlines around the world, Beijing refused to step in and halt this reign of terror. Consider that officials in Beijing still refuse to abide by their own laws and punish officials in Dongshigu for their outrageous criminal behavior.
It is thus not surprising that Chen’s video message to Wen, which went viral after his escape from house arrest, has yet to receive a response. If one local official were punished for his abuses, official morale would be damaged and the floodgates would be opened for similar cases nationwide, posing a direct threat to the regime. Although distinctions are often made between corrupt local officials and a righteous central government, their interests are aligned: maintain the veneer of stability at any cost.
After nearly a decade of persecution and abuse, Chen has arrived safely in the United States, but this struggle is not over. The one-child policy that Chen criticized, which denies 1.3 billion Chinese the right of choice and the right to life, remains in effect. Those who aided Chen’s escape are harassed and detained. And many other citizens who have been inspired by his efforts continue to face unrelenting pressure and abuse from the ever-vigilant state security forces.
The poet and priest John Donne wrote , “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” Our freedom, rights and dignity are intertwined as human beings. Of course we need to be concerned with the fate of Chen . But we also need to be concerned with the fate of the billions of citizens of China, for whom Chen and so many other courageous individuals have sought greater freedom, rights and dignity....