Imprisoning critics and skirting the rule of law do not help China’s quest for global leadership. The country cannot open up its society and economy while continuing to repress dissidents at home and maintain control over its people through censorship, illegal arrests and extrajudicial intimidation.
The most blatant current example of the damage China does to its own reputation is the case of Chen Guangcheng. It exposes the repressive side of Chinese power more than any other human rights case in recent memory – as well as the ability of international pressure to bring change.
Mr. Chen was sentenced to 51 months in prison and then house arrest for his advocacy efforts against a local family planning campaign of forced abortions and sterilization. The blind activist in his trademark dark glasses managed to pull off a daring escape from his home in Dongshigu on April 22, by scaling a two-metre-high concrete wall around his house. With the help of other activists, he made his way to the U.S. embassy in Beijing and stayed for six days, until U.S. diplomats brokered a commitment from the Chinese government that he be treated in hospital for a broken foot, and then freed.
However, once in hospital, Mr. Chen changed his mind, and decided that he, his wife and two children preferred to leave China so he could study in the U.S.
Now it appears he has succeeded in forcing the government to capitulate. This is an extraordinary reversal – but with the world watching, the Chinese government has no choice but to release Mr. Chen and investigate his videotaped allegations of persecution and abuse he says he and his wife suffered at the hands of local Communist Party officials. While state-controlled media have not published details of Mr. Chen’s meetings with the government, bloggers and the international press have done so.
Under such intense scrutiny, it has become increasingly difficult for the Communist Party to continue to deny that house arrest even exists. (One Chinese human rights group has logged 3,500 cases of arbitrary detention in 2011 alone.) Of course, not every activist can take refuge in the U.S. embassy. But the popular activism of Chinese citizens, and the power of the Internet, have made the job of silencing all critics in a country of 1.3 billion almost impossible. Eventually they will all find a voice.