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Case of Chen Guangcheng, blind legal activist, raises question of who really runs China

As a maelstrom of controversy surrounded blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng’s escape from extra-legal house detention late last month, he filmed an open plea to Premier Wen Jiabao. With less than a minute left to go in the 15-minute video, Chen closed with a question: Who gave the orders?

During the 19 months that he and his wife were confined in their home in the eastern province of Shandong, Chen said, local officials and police were allowed to assault them at will. His wife suffered a broken bone near her left eye and serious damage to the ribs and lower back, Chen said. After he fled to Beijing, the self-taught legal crusader claimed publicly that police had retaliated by tying his wife to a chair for two days and threatening to beat her to death.

“Premier Wen, regarding all of these illegal actions, many people are confused about whether it is actually the local party committee cadres violating law and discipline, running amok, or if this was prompted by the center” of the Chinese Communist Party, Chen said in the video. “I think, not long from now, you should give the public a clear-cut answer.”

With Chen’s exit to the United States apparently set – he’s in a hospital in Beijing, waiting for a passport – perhaps the most damning legacy of his story for China’s leadership isn’t just another bloody stain on its human rights record.

Instead, the plight of a blind man whose only obvious crime was advocacy on behalf of his fellow Chinese is a reminder of a question that remains unanswered about the way China is governed: Why doesn’t Beijing stop the rampant abuse of power by local officials? Are they acting at the behest of the central government, driven to maintain order at any cost? Or are some local power brokers left to develop their own fiefdoms, which simply get out of hand?

Chen has accused officials in Shandong of turning his detention into a revenue scheme. A group of at least 70 to 80 people worked to keep him and his family penned in by a labyrinth of security positions throughout the tiny village of Dongshigu, Chen said. He quoted one of his captors as saying that more than $9.5 million had been spent on the effort. And that didn’t include the cash used to bribe high-level officials in Beijing, according to Chen’s account of the conversation.

Many officials and their henchmen, Chen said, took their cut of the money.

Senior Chinese leaders acknowledge concerns about issues such as corruption and the estrangement it causes between local officials and the people for whose welfare they’re allegedly responsible. Still, there’s been limited success at addressing the problem beyond the occasional announcement of officials being sentenced for acts considered particularly egregious. Even in those instances, the parties involved are often seen as getting punished more for running afoul of factional loyalties than for flouting the law.

In the Chen case, the government’s approach so far has been a mixed one. Beijing allowed Chen to leave the U.S. Embassy unharmed, after he hid there six days, and signaled that it will grant him and his immediate family safe passage to America. But opinion columns carried by state-controlled media have painted him variously as the unfortunate dupe of Western manipulation, a tool of nefarious foreign plots and, in a stroke of authoritarian absurdism, the aggressor in a local dispute about water supply.

Chen told McClatchy this week that officials have visited him and “expressed that they would carry out investigation into the criminal acts and violation of the law in Shandong and to deal with it publicly.”

That’s a well-worn formula for the central government: When faced with trouble that can’t be crushed by police action alone, target local officials, address some public demands and then move on. It may well be the way the central government eventually will respond to the Chen case.

The Chen tale, however, raises another issue: How, as stories of injustices big and small continue and public frustration with them grows, will China’s rulers manage a system that appears increasingly complex and, maybe, brittle?

There’s little argument that the Chinese Communist Party is one of the most effective authoritarian governments in existence. Those at its pinnacle enjoy tremendous financial resources and command vast networks of security forces and censors. Loyalty to the party and gratitude for its role in turning an impoverished wreck of an economy into the second-largest in the world runs deep and wide in China.

But despite their power, examples of unrest and tragedy swell, and that has led to both hopes for breakthrough political reform and fears of further crackdowns to tighten Beijing’s grip.

Just this Thursday, state media reported that a woman who’d gone to a county demolition office in southern Yunnan province to “discuss relocation compensation” ignited explosives she’d strapped to her body. News items noted that Chinese officials had “refused her demands.” Three people died, including the bomber, and 14 were injured. Disputes over land, and the deals behind development plans, are frequent drivers of discontent in China. On Wednesday, a woman jumped to her death from a five-story building to protest the demolition of her home in Guangdong province, according to Chinese media.

One former Communist Party secretary of a village not far from Beijing, where there was local controversy about official corruption during the past year, said a key problem is the avarice of leaders who’ve taken office amid the nation’s economic boom.

“The policies themselves are good, they are designed for the good of the common people,” he said, asking that his name not be used for fear of retaliation. “But when it comes to the local governments, they’re all looking for money.”

The man, in his early 60s, was sitting in the front room of his modest home. A motorized three-wheeled cart that he often uses to get around was parked out front. His successor is said to whip around town in luxury automobiles.

“When he started at the village committee, he was having to take out loans of 20,000 yuan” – about $3,170 – “from the bank. Now he’s a very rich man,” said the retired official, who left office in 2003 following a long career in local bureaucracy.

Why don’t senior leaders crack down more on those who’ve become obvious in their corruption?

“There are people at higher levels of government who send their people on inspection tours of villages, but in reality they are coming to collect money,” the former village official said. “It makes it very complicated to investigate when one person is bribing another person – you can’t get either of them to talk.”

There is little question that Beijing was aware of Chen’s 19-month plight. Foreign media posted regular coverage, including CNN footage of an unpleasant run-in between movie star Christian Bale and guards posted outside Dongshigu. Senior U.S. diplomats reportedly raised the matter with their counterparts in China.

Chen had been sentenced to 51 months in 2006 after he campaigned on behalf of women subjected to forced sterilizations and abortions amid a local government campaign to enforce China’s one-child population control policy. The specific crimes he was convicted of – damaging property and organizing a crowd to block traffic – were taken by most observers to be spurious.

Upon being released from prison in September 2010, Chen was placed under home detention. At no point during the period that followed was Chen or his family charged with any crimes.

After riots in a district of the southwestern municipality of Chongqing last month, over the issue of government social welfare and medical benefits, one 70-year-old man said people were becoming frustrated with the gap between what Beijing promises and what community governments deliver.

“Heaven is high and the emperor is far away,” said the man, a retired coal miner surnamed Wang, who asked that his full name not be used for fear of retribution. The saying harkens back to the imperial era, emphasizing the considerable distance between the emperor and all else.

“As long as the government can . . . give benefits to the common people, then things will be good and the common people will raise both hands to support the government,” he said, throwing his arms in the air to demonstrate. “But if that doesn’t happen, the common people will be dissatisfied.”

His hands came back down in a swift motion.

That sentiment was widely expressed during two days of interviews in the area. No one there, or elsewhere in China for that matter, suggested the Communist Party is facing the downfall laid out by another imperial-era turn of phrase: losing the mandate of heaven.

It’s a maxim holding that when a Chinese ruler lost the divine consent that seated him in the first place, the heavens would send down calamities, shaking both politics and the natural world.

There have been no earthquakes. But in places like Shandong, Chongqing and many others across the country, there is at times the undeniable sensation of tremors.

Tom Lasseter, McClatchy’s Beijing bureau chief, is the recipient of the 2012 international print journalism award from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights in Washington for his reports on human rights and social justice issues in China.