Shandong officials must pay in Chen Guangcheng case
The daring escape by blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng has made headlines worldwide, creating a diplomatic headache for Washington and acute embarrassment for Beijing ahead of a visit this week by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.
As Chinese and US officials are believed to be in intense talks over Chen's fate, the mainland's massive security apparatus has reacted in typical knee-jerk fashion by detaining and questioning Chen's family members and key supporters who arranged his escape.
The news could not have come at a worse time for the mainland leaders, who are trying to contain the fallout from the political scandal involving Bo Xilai ahead of its key leadership reshuffle scheduled for later this year.
This has given rise to fears that the embarrassed Chinese leaders could launch a harsher crackdown on activists. They should not do so. Instead of venting anger at the activists and 'hostile Western forces', they should focus their wrath on the corrupt and brainless local officials in Shandong who are responsible for jailing Chen and repeatedly harassing and beating up him and his family for years. They have now turned a relatively small and typical rights petition - thousands of which occur daily on the mainland - into a major international incident.
Before we go into that in detail, it is worth looking at Chen's incredible and improbable flight.
Much has been written about the dramatic details, including how Chen climbed over a wall, crossed ditches and a river before reaching his supporters. He reportedly fell 'at least 200 times' during the escape.
But Chen's escape could not have been possible without the elaborate planning and logistical support of a small group of activists. The timing of the escape was also perfect, as it occurred just days before Clinton and Geithner's arrival in Beijing for key bilateral talks.
Many people have drawn parallels with the visit by former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun to the US consulate in Chengdu in February, just days before a visit to Washington by Vice-President Xi Jinping.
It will also surely enhance the Chinese leaders' fears of deeper involvement by 'Western hostile forces' in the mainland's rights movement.
Bob Fu, president of the US-based human rights group ChinaAid, said his group helped with Chen's escape and briefed the US government and diplomats on the process. Now Chen is widely believed to be sheltering at the US embassy in Beijing. Anyone who has been there knows that it is not easy to get inside, even with an appointment. Any visitor must go through several layers of guards - including the armed Chinese police at the gate, the mainland security guards and the US marines on the other side.
In contrast to the elaborate planning of Chen's escape, the ineffectiveness and incompetence of the mainland's security apparatus, often described as the world's biggest or most omnipresent, are almost laughable. The fact that Chen could evade hundreds of people guarding him in Shandong and meet Hu Jia, another dissident who is supposedly under close daily surveillance, before reaching the protection of US diplomats, is truly telling.
While the Chinese leaders reflect on the latest developments, the first question they should ask themselves is how this could have happened in the first place. Chen, a self-taught lawyer, merely did the right thing by exposing how officials in Linyi, a city in Shandong, broke Chinese laws by forcing thousands of women, many of them in late stages of pregnancy, to have abortions.
In any other country, Chen would have been hailed as a hero, but in Shandong he was treated as a criminal, jailed and constantly harassed after his release.
Even sadder, the central government seems powerless to stop local officials from committing such sins. This may be very hard for outsiders to believe, but the leaders in Beijing have far less influence than expected in important regional decisions, whether they be economic or social. The latest example is Bo's case. Bo ruled Chongqing as an overlord for five years, and leaders in Beijing seemed clueless until recently about how to deal with him.
Another example is the case of Gao Yaojie , a brave doctor who exposed how local officials in Henan covered up the true scale of the Aids epidemic. The Henan officials persistently harassed her, even though the central government leaders, including then vice-premier Wu Yi, publicly supported her. Gao was eventually forced to leave China and now lives in New York.
It is time for mainland leaders to assert their authority by meeting Chen's demands and launching an investigation into those officials in Shandong.