For a month now the case of the blind legal activist who sought protection in the U.S. embassy in Beijing has roiled Sino-U.S. relations, and official newspapers have denounced him as a tool of American interests. After Chen Guangcheng and his family flew to the U.S. on Saturday, one Chinese state-media outlet has softened its tone. Now, it insists, Chen is insignificant.
An editorial on Monday in the Global Times, a tabloid run by the Chinese Communist Party, described Chen’s case a “colorful bubble” that will eventually pop: “The Chen drama appears to be buzzing, but it has barely impacted Chinese society. The majority of Chinese have a mature and stable judgment of this country. That is why dissidents, who often create a sensation in the Western media, fail to make a dent among the Chinese.” That line of argument has been used before in recent years by the paper. After the dissident artist Ai Weiwei was detained for nearly three months in the spring and summer of 2011 and later accused of tax evasion, the Global Times wrote that “Ai Weiweis will be washed away by history.”
Hu Xijin, the Global Times editor, offered a slightly warmer message for Chen via Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblog service, where he wrote that he wished Chen well. He added darkly that he hoped that in the U.S., Chen “truly studies abroad in a place so far from the motherland, calmly considers what has happened and understands why he has had so many lucky encounters.” He also expressed his “hope that in a place where it is so easy to be controlled, [Chen] can stand out.”
Mainland Chinese media have so far covered little of the details about Chen’s work in Shandong province, where he helped villagers who were forced to undergo abortions or sterilizations in a draconian and illegal pursuit of China’s family-planning policies. He was jailed in 2006 on charges of property destruction and organizing a mob to disrupt traffic, which his supporters say were trumped-up. After his release in 2010, Chen spent nearly two years under house arrest. Supporters, diplomats and journalists were barred from meeting with Chen; he and his wife Yuan Weijing were abused by their guards and severely beaten after they released a video describing their harsh confinement.
Even so, domestic coverage has been far tamer following Chen’s flight to the U.S. In early May, as U.S. and Chinese officials discussed his fate, Beijing newspapers broke days of silence on Chen’s case by launching an assault on the U.S. role. Some of the most heated rhetoric came from the official Beijing Daily, which accused U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke of engaging in underhanded deals that would “bring disgrace to himself.” While much of the online commentary supported the newspaper’s stand, there was plenty of debate on forums like Weibo. Perhaps it was too much debate for the comfort of China’s censors — Weibo eventually blocked Chinese-language searches for the words Beijing Daily. The paper’s aggressive stand against Locke led to further embarrassment. One week ago, it used its Weibo account to call for Locke to reveal his personal finances. Within a day popular Weibo users like Kai-Fu Lee, a former executive at Google and Microsoft, pointed out that such information is already public.
As with the assault on Locke, repeated mentions of Chen in the state press could raise domestic interest in his case. (It’s an example of what Beijing-based public relations expert Will Moss has previously called “p.r.-ing the problem,” or drawing unwanted attention through your own actions.) Chen is still not widely known in China, but the past month’s coverage in domestic media has raised his profile. While many Chinese readers will agree with criticism of the U.S. role in protecting Chen for six days after he escaped from house arrest, they will also be curious to learn more about who he is. And his story is as compelling as the role of officials in Shandong is troubling. Even before Chen’s escape from house arrest, there was a grassroots effort to support him, and average citizens like former English teacher He Peirong found themselves drawn to his cause.
Earlier this spring I interviewed a migrant worker about a strike at the electronics factory where he was employed in Shenzhen. At the end of our discussion he said he knew that TIME had once interviewed the blind lawyer. “Blind lawyer?” I asked, shocked that a factory worker would know about a man who had been under one form of arrest or another since 2005. “Yes, you know, the blind lawyer Chen,” he replied, adding that he had been inspired by him and closely followed his case. On Sunday, Chen enjoyed his first day of freedom in seven years. The Wall Street Journal even photographed him and his wife relaxing in New York City’s Washington Square Village playground. Chen’s influence may, as state media suggest, diminish during his exile. But not if they keep talking about him.