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Blind man’s bluff|
The case of a blind Chinese activist spurs internet activism
w ww.economist.c om/node/21536639
Nov 5th 2011 | BEIJING | from the print edition
ON A local-government website, Chen Guangcheng is still listed as one of Linyi prefecture’s top news personalities of 2003: “a young blind person who upholds the rights of the handicapped”. As well as helping the disabled win benefits, Mr Chen helped farmers in his coastal Shandong province resist illegal land-seizures. Local officials, however, have long since tired of Mr Chen’s activism. In 2006 he was sentenced to four years in jail for exposing the brutality of officials enforcing family-planning regulations. Since his release, Mr Chen has been a prisoner in his own home, watched around the clock by hired thugs. They prevent well-wishers even from entering his home village of Dongshigu, sometimes with violence. Yet recently an online campaign has encouraged a growing number of Mr Chen’s supporters to attempt to visit.
The use of the internet to mobilise people to visit Mr Chen has rattled officials far beyond Shandong province. It is the first time in China that activists have made such a persistent effort to show up in solidarity with someone under house arrest. It also coincides with attempts to use weibo, or microblogs, to gain support for independent candidates in elections to low-level “people’s congresses” that have been taking place around the country. Though the congresses have little power, and it is very difficult for truly independent candidates to stand, the polls still make the Communist Party nervous.
In this section
* The twilight zone
* Peace, in your own time
* Echoes of dreamland
* Rising damp
* »Blind man’s bluff
* Digging holes
* Social issues
* Human rights
Activists know they have little chance of meeting Mr Chen, whose house is floodlit at night and cut off from mobile-phone networks. But there have been numerous quixotic forays. On October 14th a number of disabled men and women from neighbouring Anhui province were turned away. On October 30th, says Human Rights in China, an NGO based in New York, a group of 37 people who made the attempt to get through was attacked by around 100 thugs.
Some state-controlled media have been emboldened, too. One Beijing newspaper, Global Times, published an editorial on October 12th saying allegations that Mr Chen’s human rights were being abused “may not be simply invented”. A Shanghai newspaper, Oriental Morning News, then criticised Global Times for being too soft on the local government. It described how a reporter for a publication owned by the official news agency, Xinhua, had been beaten up while trying to visit Dongshigu on October 5th. This journalist, as it happens, has since been forced to resign.
The central authorities, however, have shown no disapproval of the Linyi authorities’ heavy-handedness, even though Mr Chen has posed no direct challenge to the Communist Party itself, while his case has featured prominently among human-rights concerns raised by Western governments. The only concession has been to allow Mr Chen’s six-year-old daughter to leave the family house to go to school.
The authorities in Beijing show increasing anxiety about activists’ use of the internet. Beijing Daily said on October 17th that “serious flaws and problems” in the rapid development of weibo services needed to be addressed in order to prevent “huge social harm”. A day later an annual meeting of the party’s Central Committee called for strengthened “management” of the internet. This presumably will not involve letting Mr Chen and his family use it.