China’s media conditions threaten Chen Guangcheng

The battle over blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng’s freedom and well-being is a battle over information. Both Chinese and U.S. officials are trying to spin the story their way. A few activists and media claim to speak for Chen, and in China’s anti-press environment they are putting themselves at risk. Direct interviews with the man himself are hard to come by.

Chen, a public figure for the past decade due to his work advocating for victims of forced birth control, escaped from house arrest in Shandong province last week and made his way to the U.S. embassy in Beijing. The desperate 300-mile overnight trip was a cry for help. Thugs have restrained him at home and physically attacked journalists who tried to interview him since his release from prison in 2010, where he spent four years for his crusading work.   

According to the State department briefing, Chen departed the embassy this morning because China had promised he would “treated humanely.” The American official said the U.S. would follow up on Beijing’s commitments and that Washington was “true to our human rights policy, which is one in which individuals within their own societies are given an opportunity to engage.” 

Here’s the rub. Chinese leaders have repeatedly denied Chen the “opportunity to engage.” Plain-clothed security agents have continually obstructed the media from reporting on him. How can officials in the U.S. embassy monitor his treatment going forward if neither he, nor the media, can speak freely? Images of hospital security marshaling journalists outside the Beijing hospital where he was reported to be receiving treatment today were reminiscent of the anti-media guard stationed outside his home in Linyi.

A Foreign Ministry spokesperson accused the U.S. of “misleading public opinion” about Chen, according to Agence France-Presse. Beijing is not willing to cede control of this narrative.

And even if Chen’s story were to have a happy ending, dozens of other activists, writers, and journalists are under extrajudicial house arrest in China. They must all have a line of communication with the world: The local and international media must be allowed to report on their cases. Until that’s true, the safety of neither Chen nor the others can be guaranteed.

So who is left to speak for Chen? Chinese activist Zeng Jinyan, wife of formerly imprisoned journalist Hu Jia, close friend of Chen, and herself a long-time victim of intense extrajudicial surveillance, has been reporting another version of today’s developments on her personal Twitter account:

“Guangcheng didn’t want to leave the embassy, he had no choice. If he didn’t leave, Yuan Weijing (Chen’s wife) would be sent back to Shandong.”

Chen’s wife fears for her safety if she is left in the hands of the vindictive local law enforcement, Zeng reported. Time magazine correspondent Austin Ramzy spoke to Zeng by phone and reported on his own Twitter account:

“Spoke briefly with @zengjinyan She said tweets were hers but couldn’t speak further. ‘It’s a big risk,’ she said.”

The situation is still unfolding, but it is clear that more than just Chen’s safety hangs in the balance. Those who report on him still face harassment or worse.

“Internet users and journalist friends, Chen Guangcheng’s whole family is relying on you,” Zeng said on her Twitter account today. “And if something happens to me after this, I’ll be relying on you too.”