By Casey Hynes
Since last week, when rumors of Chen Guangcheng’s arrival at the American embassy in Beijing broke, the Western media began to buzz with rumors and speculation about his fate. The blind Chinese activist and dissident had escaped from his home in Shandong province after spending nearly two years under house arrest.
Yet for all the analysis in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker, The Guardian, and other prominent Western publications, the Chinese media stayed mostly silent — unsurprisingly so.
Chen’s escape poses a potential embarrassment to the Chinese government and the Party does not like that. Chinese culture dictates that “saving face” is of paramount importance and no one upholds that principle like the Chinese government. In fact, Chen’s escape from house arrest and rumored possible defection come at a most inopportune time for the government. The establishment has already been rocked by the Bo Xilai scandal that broke earlier this year. No wonder, then, that the Chinese media would keep mum about what could potentially be another scandal that would harm diplomatic relations and bring down international ire regarding the government’s dubious human rights record.
Even more incoveniently for the Party, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Beijing Wednesday for a long-scheduled meeting with Chinese officials. It is widely accepted that Chen’s situation will overshadow those talks and highlight the tenuous relationship between China and the U.S. and bring scrutiny for the government’s treatment of human rights activists.
That the story of Chen Guangchaneg’s escape remained conspicuously absent from the home pages of Global Times, Xinhua, China Daily, and The People’s Daily is to be expected. (Global Times did run an op-ed piece on the situation on its homepage Tuesday, but mostly criticized Chen for overestimating his personal importance and the West for its own human rights issues.) Major Chinese publications are either owned or strongly influenced by the government and the stories tend toward favoring the government and the country, rather than being exceptionally critical. It does seem almost nonsensical, however, that on the Xinhua site, a story about Premiere Wen Jiabao visiting bus drivers and street cleaners in Beijing receives prominent placement while news of Chen’s whereabouts and whether or not he is safe is not referenced.
Numerous reasons for this media blackout seem plausible. Again, the issue of saving face plays into all aspects of Chinese dealings. Then there is the question of what the public response would be.
Multiple uprisings and protests have broken out in China in recent months and people might rally in support of Chen’s cause. The blind lawyer made a name for himself by insisting on the enforcement of laws designed to help disabled people. He later became a target because he exposed forced abortions and sterilizations in his oppostion to China’s one-child policy. An emboldened population staging protests during a significant political year, in which there will be a once-in-a-decade transfer of power, would likely be most undesirable. Best, then, to keep the media from publicizing the case, especially as Chen’s fate — including whether or not he will leave China — is debated.
The censoring has even affected conversations on weibo, a Chinese microblogging site similar to Twitter. A rumor began that Chen would escape the country on United Airlines flight 898, and suddenly, the search term “UA898” was blocked on the service.
The media blackout has not kept the country ignorant, however. While state media and propaganda arms refuse — or are forbidden — to publish stories on the Chen situation, alternative publications such as The Shanghaiist and China Digital Times freely offer analysis on what this predicament means for China, particularly in light of Clinton’s visit.
Bloggers in China also feed the news cycle, offering analysis on Chen’s situation and circulating a YouTube video of him appealing to Premier Wen Jiabao for the safety of his family and relatives. These kinds of posts are in some ways most valuable, written by people on the ground in China who have some understanding of the culture and are not beholden to a state organization for their jobs.
It seems unlikely that the Chinese state media blackout on Chen’s story will lift anytime soon, but bloggers and reporters using Twitter to update followers on the story will certainly carry that torch.
The Western media could be said to have a responsibility to publicize the story and hold both Western and Chinese politicians to the fire over the treatment of activists and detainees. In the days leading up to Clinton’s arrival in Beijing, it became clear that major power players were not going to do of their own accord.
In a show of cowardice and diplomacy, U.S. President Barack Obama urged “freedom” in China but would not reference Chen by name.
It takes some gall to speak of freedom without referencing the fact that a man’s life may well be at stake, and that said man’s friends and family are being detained and arrested, but it seems that a life is of little importance when compared with the political wheeling and dealing likely to take place during Clinton’s visit. Prior to leaving the U.S., Clinton also spoke of the emphasis on human rights but refused to take a firm stance on Chen’s situation.
There is an opportunity here for media outlets outside of China to expose the inhumane treatment of political prisoners in China and hold politicans accountable. But even if they don’t, you can be sure that the bloggers and netizens within the country will get the story out, one way or another.