Blind lawyer spurs news blackout in China

News of blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng has been censored for months. International news reports of his escape last week from incarceration in his home in Linyi, Shandong–apparently to U.S. protection, although his whereabouts remain unclear–has only intensified that censorship. That is unlikely to stop discussion among those familiar with Chen’s case.

The self-taught lawyer, though all but banned from mainstream media in China, is famous in local human rights circles for being imprisoned after helping women file suit against city officials for forced abortions. Users of the Sina microblog service Weibo used to refer to him as “cgc:” Now those initials produce error messages, according to Internet expert William Farris on his Google + account. “Blind man” and “embassy” were also blocked after some reports said he had taken refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing, with help from supporters who spirited him away from his home, Reuters reported.

Will censorship help the authorities keep this story quiet? Chen became even better known after his imprisonment, when he and his wife publicized with an online video the invasive police surveillance they suffered after his September 2010 release. His supporters have resorted to a number of creative methods to refer to him while evading the censors in the past, including sharing pictures of themselves sporting his trademark dark glasses.

If the censors are ignored, security officials may turn to more extreme measures. Police have already begun detaining some of Chen’s supporters, including formerly imprisoned journalist Hu Jia, who was questioned this weekend, according to the BBC. Chen’s fate remains unclear, but how authorities treat him if he remains in the country could have significant ramifications. There are dozens of dissidents and journalists kept under surveillance with limited freedom in their homes in China, according to CPJ research.  Chen, who made a video appeal to Wen Jiabao to protect his family as part of his escape bid, is questioning the system of extrajudicial detention on behalf of them all.

Chinese censors, of course, are trying to make sure his message isn’t heard. But we’ve said it before: Censorship of this kind just draws more attention to the story. It won’t stop the speculation about Chen’s future. It may even contribute to his legend. The latest banned code word for Chen’s breakout, according to the Global Post news website, is the title of a classic Hollywood movie of overcoming false conviction: “The Shawshank Redemption.”