Can Chen Guangcheng Find Justice in China?

  • Share
  • Read Later
ChinaAid / POLARIS

For months he was simply known as “army coat.” The burly man clad in a green surplus military jacket was just another of the dozens of men who kept Chen Guangcheng under house arrest until a CNN crew accompanied actor Christian Bale on an attempt to visit the blind legal activist in December. Then, after Bale was roughed up by the guards, “army coat” became a celebrated foe for Chen’s supporters—an embodiment of the brutal means used to contain him, a thug who kept Batman at bay.

Now “army coat” has been named. After Chen escaped from house arrest in Shandong on April 22 and stumbled for hours through the night until he was picked up and driven to Beijing, he recorded a video listing people who had abused him and his family during his nearly two years of house arrest. “Army coat” is in fact Zhang Shenghe, Chen said, a member of the township staff who had thrown rocks at a CNN crew on a previous visit. The 15-minute video naming Zhang and a half-dozen others was addressed to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who Chen asked to protect his family and investigate the violence against them.

(MORE: Team Chen: Activists, Friends Now Also at Risk)

Chen, 40, is staying at Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital with his wife and two children while they wait for permission to travel to the U.S., where he has been invited for a university fellowship. Will they be allowed to leave? The answer is important not just for his personal freedom, but as a sign of the Chinese government’s intentions. Equally important is whether the authorities will investigate Chen’s complaints of abuse. Since leaving the protection of the U.S. Embassy on May 2, Chen has met four times with a representative of the central government, offering details on the people he says have kept him under arbitrary detention and violated his rights for years. “I hope all government officials involved in the illegal activities will be thoroughly investigated, no matter how high up their positions are,” Chen said in a phone interview with TIME.

Chen knows the central government representative only by his surname, Guo, and says he works for the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, an administrative body that receives petitions from people who have been unable to find justice in the country’s courts. It is an ancient system that dates to imperial times, and is notoriously inefficient means of resolving the complaints of average citizens.  After spending six days in the protection of the U.S. Embassy, Chen is no longer an average citizen. The uncertainty over his fate led to a potential diplomatic debacle at a time when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner were in Beijing for annual Sino-U.S. talks. So there is a chance that Chen’s complaints will get a fuller hearing than those of the typical petitioner.

(MORE: The Chen Guangcheng Affair: Potential Study Abroad Deal May End Diplomatic Impasse)

The names he listed include deputy village leader Zhang Jian, who Chen says led repeated assaults on his family’s farmhouse and once bragged to him, “We don’t care about the law. We don’t care about its stipulations and we won’t follow any legal procedure.” After Chen’s flight was discovered on April 26, Zhang led a group of people to the house his nephew, Chen Kegui. Chen Kegui used a knife to slash at the people who entered his house. He has been arrested and authorities in Linyi, the city that oversees the Chens’ village of Dongshigu, have said he could face charges. Chen Kegui says he was acting in self-defense.

Higher on the list officials allegedly connected to Chen’s mistreatment is Li Qun, who as Communist Party secretary for Linyi ordered the draconian enforcement of China’s one-child policy that led to forced abortions and sterilizations beginning in 2005. Chen’s efforts to fight those illegal measures embarrassed Linyi officials. In 2006 he was sentenced to a four-year prison term on charges of damaging property and disrupting traffic, which his supporters say were trumped-up. Since then Li, who attended a public administration course at the University of New Haven in 2000, has worked his way up the bureaucratic ranks. He is now the party secretary for the Shandong port city of Qingdao, home of the famous Tsingtao beer, and a member of the province’s top-level Standing Committee. In 2004 he wrote a book based on his time in the U.S. titled “I Was an Assistant to an American Mayor,” in which he portrays himself as a confidant to New Haven Mayor John DeStefano.

In recent months Li Qun has been under fire, not for his role in Chen’s case, but because of allegations that he exaggerated his experiences in New Haven. In the book Li writes that he helped DeStefano investigate police officers accused of taking excessive leave and educated him on the finer points of China’s political system. A standoff like the 2000 U.S. presidential election would never happen in China, he wrote, because in balloting for the National People’s Congress precludes ties. “Your National People’s Congress system is great!” Li says DeStefano responded.

(MORE: Could Chen Guangcheng Be Allowed to Leave China to Study Abroad?)

While the University of New Haven says Li spent a number of weeks as an observer in DeStefano’s office, the mayor’s office says it has no record of him. “We have searched through payroll records and found nothing regarding Li Qun, as well as intern files that might have records of an unpaid internship,” City of New Haven spokesperson Elizabeth Benton said in an email. While an informal job shadowing experience might not be listed in the city’s records, Benton says, someone in that position would not be given significant responsibility. “He never would have been involved in a personnel investigation,” she says. In December Fang Zhouzi, a science writer who has raised questions about the resumes of several high-profile Chinese business leaders, accused Li of fabricating parts of his book. Fang’s pursuit of Li has tapered off in recent months as he pursues a campaign against celebrity Chinese author Han Han, who he accuses of using ghostwriters and, most recently, exaggerating his height. (Han Han has denied Fang’s claims.)

Chen has doubts about whether anyone will be punished in his case. “Guo said they will definitely investigate those officials,” Chen told TIME on Tuesday. “But I’m not sure they will keep their promise.” Already he says the authorities have soft-pedaled a promise made over the weekend to drop the tight security around his farmhouse, where video cameras had been installed after his escape. When he checked with his family in Shandong, they said the cameras and security were still there. “I asked Guo again on that afternoon,” Chen says. “He told me to check with my family again. I did, and they said that the people around my house had now moved to the entrance of the village.” A day later Chen’s family told him the security remained, only now they were disguised as roving ice cream vendors.

with reporting by Jessie Jiang/Beijing
MORE: Murder, Lies, Abuse Of Power And Other Crimes Of The Chinese Century