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Last week, a photo emerged on weibo of a woman laying next to her aborted daughter*, and the Chinese Internet exploded in anger over how the One Child Policy was being implemented (The New Yorker has a good overview). I didn’t comment on this last week, not because of self-censorship or a disinterest in the story, but because I had failed to consider just how powerful that image was.
In the hospital where I work, dozens of abortions take place everyday in the name of family planning; I had assumed most people were aware of the practice, and as I’ve discussed before abortions aren’t usually seen as a moral choice. While most of these would be considered “voluntary,” if there were no policy, these women would be giving birth. In some sense, most of the abortions that take place in the Family Planning office are forced, even if they don’t require physical force.
A nurse told me last year that in some cases the child had reached maturity, and would have been viable had it been delivered. In one case, she had witnessed an infant taking its last breaths on the operating table, but it was in violation of the policy and was not to be treated as a life. The child took several minutes to die. The nurse waited until she got home to cry for her. Other nurses from the OB/GYN department have told me that they feel what is happening in their department is wrong, but they say it is pointless to question the policy. If they were to refuse to perform abortions they would be fired.
In response to the firestorm of criticism family planning officials were let go. These are scapegoats. What would have happened if these low-level officials had exceeded their birth quotas? Would these officials have taken such drastic actions if they thought they would be punished for them? As long as this policy exists this story will repeat, because it relies on the coercive force of local officials for compliance. The unquestionable power of officials and murky laws enable this kind of behavior.
As an unnamed local official said to the Wall Street Journal:
“Grass-roots comrades aren’t stupid, but this is what they’re forced to do. This is a problem with the entire system.”
Global Times tried to spin this story, saying that the laws to protect women from this treatment were already in place and that it was simply a problem of enforcement. I think most readers of this blog already understand that this is not the only law in China that is flouted by local officials. However the most despicable thing about this editorial was that just weeks ago the same paper denounced Chen Guangcheng as a criminal – his unspoken crime was opposing forced abortions in Linyi.
Similar stories have all been told before online, but none of them failed to draw the same amount of discussion as this single image. Perhaps we’ve given the Internet alone too much credit in the fight for global human rights. While it is an essential tool for spreading information, the ubiquitous camera phone has become the best tool for capturing abuse. Images are much harder to deny or condemn as products of the west, and more importantly, images haunt one’s conscience in a way that words do not.
Had the scene simply been described, it would not have drawn the visceral reactions that came from seeing the image. It forced people to confront the violent nature of the One Child Policy in a way that essays and editorials never could have achieved. Something is lost when we speak in terms of “400 million prevented births,” that only emerges when we see the effect on a single family grieving for the loss of their daughter.
*I don’t link to graphic images as policy on this blog, but the image is widely available on other China blogs
For seven years Chen Guangcheng has been silenced in China for his role in opposing illegal forced abortions in Shandong province, that ended today with his arrival in the US. Even after his escape from thugs in Linyi, the gov’t in Beijing kept him in a tightly guarded hospital room. Finally, he will have a chance to talk openly about his experiences and the situation facing hundreds of other activists in China.
I hope you will take a moment to reflect on the power of that image – a man once tortured and imprisoned, now is able to stand in front of the world.
I wanted to say that he was no longer afraid of the Chinese gov’t and their reprisals, but much of Chen’s extended family are still facing harassment from officials in Linyi. Even 10,000 miles away from Beijing, he is reminded that “opportunities and risk exist at the same time,” and is not yet truly free from the authorities.
Image is from NYT, read their full article here
Video of Chen’s speech in NY from New Tang Dynasty
Last week Chen Guangcheng entered a US embassy for the protection that the Chinese gov’t had failed to provide the innocent man. According to Chen’s friends, it was a step that Chen did not want to take. Today we will be looking at three lessons Chen’s case teaches us about China’s legal system.
Chen Guangcheng would never call himself a dissident; he might hesitate to even describe himself as an activist. The incredible thing that we should keep in mind as representatives from the US and China decide Chen’s fate, is that he is a man who simply thought that the laws on paper should be enforced. Chen’s initial fame came from his efforts to protect the rights of the disabled and he fell afoul of the system when he sought to stop forced abortions which were beyond what the one-child policy called for (Yaxue’s profile of Chen back in November covered this in-depth). His case, even more so than Bo Xilai’s, demonstrates that China absolutely is not a country ruled by law.
When my wife mentioned this case to a few of her students, they were baffled that such a case could even exist. Surely, they thought, this was another instance of local governments acting out and the Central gov’t simply is unaware of the abuse. However as we have discussed before, the Central gov’t has been aware of Chen’s illegal detention for at least half a year. Also, Ge Xun’s extra-legal detention in February showed that silencing the story of Chen Guangcheng was a national priority that involved the upper levels of government. Chen’s escape illuminates the fact that the supposedly benevolent Central Gov’t was unwilling to protect the rights of the individual when it did not benefit the Party line. I know that this is in no way surprising to most of my readers, but to many of my Chinese friends who are not as involved in politics, it will be shocking.
Chen’s case highlights another interesting aspect that we should bear in mind, that Chen’s detention was only made possible by the involvement of hundreds of villagers turned thugs. I don’t believe these are bad people, I think they are poor and desperate people who saw an opportunity to escape poverty. In China, censorship, black-jails, and forced demolitions all rely on the participation of individuals in despicable acts. As China raises the standards of living I believe it will become more difficult to attract the number of people necessary to impose such plans (or at the very least, cost prohibitive).
Finally, it should be noted that Chen’s case is in no way a victory.
A victory would require some kind of reform or future promise offered to those who are trying simply to enjoy the protections enshrined in the laws of the People’s Republic of China. A victory would have been the Central Gov’t stepping in and stopping the abuses in Linyi instead of supporting them by cracking down on activists in other provinces. A victory would have been an acknowledgement of Chen’s case and a public denunciation of the practice (similar to what happened in Wukan). A victory would have been the removal of those who imprisoned Chen (they continue to enjoy the privileges of Party rank). There has been no victory yet, and it is doubtful there will be one as a result of Chen’s case.
After 5+ years of waiting, I think it is safe to say that Chen is a patient man, and yet he knew that at this point, escape was his only option for freedom. That Chinese law offered him no protection. This must have been a heart rending decision for a man who lost so much for his dedication to upholding the law. China is no closer to securing the rights of its people, which is what Chen was fighting for in 2006 when he was thrown in prison under false accusations (the China Daily account from that time is preposterous). Chen’s escape simply means that one less person is suffering from extra-legal detention, but does nothing to prevent it happening to others. I hope now that Chen has escaped his home turned prison, those who worked for his freedom will now take up his original cause.
As a China blogger, it’s a pretty big week, open rebellion in Wukan has attracted a flock of journalist, and then Hollywood star Christian Bale/Batman attempted to visit blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng. The big question floating around at the moment is does foreign pressure mean anything to China?
Before I address that question I would first like to point out that Christian Bale has created one heck of a dilemma for China’s censors. The media gears have been spinning wildly to promote his new film, The Flowers of War, which opens today in China. I passed Mr. Bale’s image at least 4-5 times just on my way to work this morning. How are they going to block discussion of his trip to Linyi without limiting the reach of what has been called a propaganda film?
The film has been criticized overseas already for portraying the Japanese soldiers as monochrome monsters, and I am worried that the film will be fraught with historical inaccuracies (the Rape of Nanking is something I have spent a considerable amount of time researching). He also hasn’t given the most impressive answers to questions asked about the film.
That being said, his trip to Linyi is nonetheless heroic. The video of him being chased out of the village has refocused the spotlight on Linyi, at a moment when efforts from Chinese activists were waning. Both Yaxue and myself were overwhelmed upon hearing that a prominent westerner finally made the trip, knowing in advance what the result would be. I’m sure many other Chinese were moved by this as well.
So will Bale’s visit to Linyi and the media gathering in Wukan help or hurt the situation?
Many observers worry that foreign coverage will allow the Party to label these incidents the result of foreign involvement, but there is a growing gap between what the gov’t says and what the people believe (as evidenced by the air monitoring debate in Beijing). Claims of “foreign involvement” have already been made in both places, and have been soundly rejected by Chinese activists. In one case, a prominent commentator claimed that Chen had been funded by foreign forces and was met with a lengthy confrontation by a young woman wearing sunglasses, a symbol of Chen’s supporters, demanding proof that he couldn’t provide. The video spread quickly across Chinese forums.
In Wukan, foreign journalists are reporting that the villagers are very much aware of the danger that comes with communicating these problems beyond China’s borders, but they feel it’s the only way to get China’s gov’t to act. One journalist, Tom Lasseter, tried to buy toothpaste from one of the shops in Wukan, but the manager wouldn’t accept his money and thanked him for being present. In both places, Chinese villagers/activists have sought foreign attention.
In the situation of Wukan the villagers still firmly believe that the central gov’t will help rescue them from the clutches of the corrupt local officials. Activists in the Chen Guangcheng case continue to press the fact that his detention is illegal, and hope that the central gov’t will push the local gov’t to set Chen and his family free.
Both cases rely on action from the Central gov’t, which prefers to plead ignorance about problems caused by local gov’ts. Foreign media coverage will very likely force some kind of resolution, whether or not that is a positive is impossible to know.
This brings us to another one of the big problems with this question: it assumes China and its people are one homogeneous mass. Within China there are currently two factions competing for future control of the Party. One seeks to further liberalize the economy and promotes grass root efforts; the other urges the Party to reassert itself as the sole power.
While this blog often focuses on the activities of China’s netizens that are pushing for reform, it is important to remember that China’s internet is also home to a large group of Nationalists who would urge the Party not to appear weak in front of foreign cameras (remember what happened in a certain square in ’89).
The central government’s reaction to either of these situations could signal China’s future direction, and the Party prefers to communicate through drastic measures. A shift towards liberalization and democracy, might be shown with investigations into local officials, demotions and possibly executions. A shift back to centralized power could include investigations of local “agitators”, as well as lengthy jail terms and possibly executions.
There is also a third group to consider, perhaps the largest, that is indifferent when it comes to these issues; the side that doesn’t want to discuss “unhappy things” as a co-worker calls them. This group shrinks each time something happens in a place that reminds them of their hometown.
Ge Xun, an activist involved with Chen’s case, told me, “In my view all publicity will help. I am one who believes in openness (no face saving backroom deals), and that freedom is something that people are born with, it is not given or granted. No one can regain their freedom once it has been taken away by begging, it must be fought for.” Today that fight involves a man and his family in Linyi, and a village of farmers and fishermen in Wukan, struggling to regain what has been taken from them. Whether the Central gov’t decides to side with the people or the corrupt officials, we will be watching.