May 1, 2012, by China Policy Institute

Some Devil’s Advocacy – Chen Guangcheng’s Escape

By Sam Beatson.

News abounds that blind dissident activist, Chen Guangcheng, made an escape to the US embassy in Beijing this week. Democratic media has provided him with a platform to air his views and requests. He calls for justice to be served on local officials whom he alleges assaulted his family and he demands protection for them. He calls on high ranking CPC Standing Committee member Wen Jiabao to investigate these matters and for corruption to be dealt with in China.

Whatever the foundations of Mr Chen’s pleas to the Party, ironic, courageous, defiant, sincere, or treacherous depending on the line you take, it guarantees to be a hot topic of private chatter in online China forums and across China itself.  Yet publicly, it will be an unspoken rule forming part of the mainland Chinese culture to not publicly mention or dig deeply into the issue because of its potential to be political. Strictly taboo, so hush, hush!

To this end I sympathise with my dear Chinese counterparts who would be forgiven for thinking, “well, it’s ok for him to discuss openly this matter”. But the question I’ve got to ask is: what causes the kind of behaviour which persecutes a blind activist like Chen Guangcheng?

Mr Chen makes himself a target because he brings shame on the Party. He shows us the faceless image of China we never, ever read about in “The China Daily,” for example. In this paper, everyone is busy running multi-billion dollar enterprises while officials proudly visit foreign factories and show off China’s cutting edge business leadership and urban development. The image presented is that everyman and his dog in China can afford to buy luxuriant brands and live in opulence. China’s a pretty utopia! This is a wonderful bit of positive thinking with some genuine merit, painting a miraculously untainted story.

But voices like Chen Guangcheng’s can be likened to the Lorax, of the Dr. Seuss story recently remade as a movie. “He speaks for the trees.” Lorax Chen speaks for ordinary people’s perceived rights. However, in China, it is not the job of the individual to speak for the people, for this is the job of the Party. China simply cannot afford instability. Don’t you know this Mr Chen? What the rights people need to know is that instability has the potential to cause the loss of so many lives at this juncture. Sadly, in China, this means people like Mr. Chen need to be hogtied. He’s that dangerous. There’s no gently, gently about this in China. And there are historical and practical reasons for this.

Famines, deaths, wars etc. could follow on from the instability caused by mass insurrections, mainly because of China’s fragility with respect to basic human needs like food. Without a happy and willing agrarian population, a $2,500,000 two-bed in Shanghai becomes worthless. Instability in China has historical instances rooted from dissatisfaction of the lower classes with the government.

The difficulty arises when the politico-economic issue get crossed with the morality issue. The Party doesn’t concede that there is a morality issue at Chen’s level, if at all. Local officials might well sanction “communist tactics” on Chen and his family. A great many would agree this is “wrong” aside from the absolute staunchest of Marxists. On the other hand, to maintain stability is the right thing to do in China and without the Party, it’s uncertain how this could be conceived.

While the Chinese government should not ignore the issue of corruption, to be fair, it doesn’t entirely. We need to recognise the Party’s having been growing and changing and there’s no present alternative to the CPC’s authority. Thus, the blind man will be criticised en-masse for causing such a stir at this time. Yet, in the eyes of the just, his requests are fair and reasonable and Chinese people appreciate justice like anyone else.

Perceived shortcomings of the Party notwithstanding, the call on policymakers is to appreciate that this is not a one-sided morality (human rights) argument, but a sensitive politico-economic issue. Democratic revolutionism is not yet the plan of the Party and perhaps wisely so.

Sam Beatson is a PhD Candidate in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

Posted in Society