State of Injustice

What the bizarre cases of Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng can tell us about China.

Since local party boss and rising star Bo Xilai's stunning ouster from the Chinese Communist Party in April for "suspected serious violations of discipline," some of the world's best China watchers have been given room in the mainstream press to compare Bo to other top Chinese officials. We've learned much about the "princelings" -- leading cadres whose status in the political pecking order is a function of their parents' allegiance to Mao -- and the collateral damage that could be done to reputations by family members.

But in the long run, the more telling comparison about the nature of power in China today may be between Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist who last week escaped house arrest in Shandong and made his way to Beijing, where he is reportedly seeking refuge in the U.S. Embassy. It isn't that Bo and Chen have similar agendas or found themselves in similar circumstances. It's that these two cases lay bare the extraordinary unpredictability inherent in authoritarian rule and the lengths to which people will go when they are utterly desperate.

Chen, blind since birth, began his journey through China's sometimes Kafka-esque politico-legal system in 2005. After unsuccessfully attempting to file a class-action lawsuit about abuses of the family-planning regime in Linyi City, he and his family members were subject to collective punishment and confined to their home for six months. In March 2006, authorities forcibly removed Chen from his home, telling the family nothing about his whereabouts or legal status for another three months. In June of that year, officials finally acknowledged Chen's detention, but threatened his lawyers and his family and initiated formal legal proceedings on ludicrous charges of damaging property and disrupting traffic. In August 2006, after legal proceedings that could be most charitably described as a kangaroo court, Chen was sentenced to four years and three months. But after he served his time and was released in September 2010, he and his family were again confined -- with no legal basis -- to their home.

Over the course of 2011, Chen, with the help of activists, released a video documenting the abuses to which he and his family were being subject by the dozens of guards who watched them around the clock. At the same time, growing numbers of concerned individuals and activists, as well as some courageous foreign journalists and foreign diplomats, attempted to visit Chen and his family; all were turned back by local thugs with varying degrees of violence. The alarming news kept coming: Chen's health was declining. His young daughter was prevented from attending school; after diplomatic intervention, local authorities "compromised" and allowed her to go -- accompanied by guards. Arguably most disturbing, Chen's young son, who was living elsewhere with other relatives, reportedly cut himself in order to be hospitalized, believing that his mother would finally be allowed to see him. She wasn't.

And so this year, the plan developed for Chen to break out of his and his family's surreal confinement. Last weekend, he slipped past his guards and made his way to Beijing, where he released a video calling on Chinese premier Wen Jiabao to investigate his situation, and pointing out what unnerves Chinese leaders more than just about anything else: that there is growing popular interest in his fate. Chen now appears to have sought sanctuary in the U.S. Embassy -- just days before the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue meetings in Beijing -- and retributions are already being directed at those who helped him "escape."

Central government officials, when pressed about Chen's confinement, occasionally offered up variations on an extraordinary lie: He was free, having completed his sentence. He didn't want visitors, or was too poor to travel. At no point did they intervene or discipline those who held Chen. They were too busy with more important matters, such as the anticipated leadership change in late 2012.

Bo Xilai's star rose in part on the putative success of his similarly twisted interpretations of the law. During his tenure as mayor of Chongqing -- a city-state of 30 million people -- Bo cracked down relentlessly on some organized crime to generate local support. He tried to burnish his national political credentials with economic policies designed to reduce socioeconomic disparities and a neo-Maoist campaign that featured, among other things, schoolchildren singing Cultural Revolution-era "red" songs. Like many others jockeying for positions on the Politburo's Standing Committee -- the body, often consisting of nine members, that effectively runs the country -- he too was a "princeling." And along the way he too allowed the silencing of people like Chen. Bo's corruption drew the attention of veteran journalist Jiang Weiping and lawyer Li Zhuang; the former was sentenced in 2001 to eight years in jail for violating state secrets laws, while the latter was framed, tortured, and sentenced to 18 months in prison for defending a suspected crime syndicate boss.

But when the end came for Bo -- in the form of removal from his official position following the news that his wife, Gu Kailai, may have been complicit in the murder of a foreign businessman -- the circumstances were no more bound by law and due process than that which Chen and his family have endured for years.

Upon his ouster from the party on April 10, the state news agency Xinhua announced that Bo would be investigated for "serious discipline violations." This language suggests that Bo will be subject to the party's own internal discipline system, but it remains unclear whether he will also face criminal charges. He has disappeared from view, and it is equally unclear whether his family has information regarding his whereabouts or whether he has access to a lawyer. While it's hard to generate sympathy for someone who built his career on nakedly disregarding the law, the fact remains that he too is entitled to due process.

There are a few lessons one can draw from these episodes.

One is that politics in China is extraordinarily opaque. Last month's rising political star has now vanished into the party's maw, while the fate of the long-suffering legal activist has the potential to disrupt a major diplomatic summit between the United States and China. The more important lesson may be that politics in China remain highly unpredictable. While to some it may be reassuring to see Chen relatively free and Bo detained,  neither story will play out according to agreed-upon rules or procedures, or without abuses, often directed at third parties. Until such time as laws function predictably and free of political whims, one is left with the uneasy sense that few are safe from arbitrary treatment in China.

Other governments, particularly the United States, are scrambling to make sense of and respond to these riptides in China's domestic and international politics. Some will argue that for the United States to intervene in any aspect of Chen's or Bo's cases will jeopardize the bilateral relationship.

But this framing misses a few key points: Segments of Chinese society have had enough of officialdom's abusive, predatory behavior, and they see the prospect for change in Bo's fall and in Chen's persistent activism. At the end of the day, the fate of these men may not rest in U.S. hands. But there is real merit in foreign governments demonstrating unequivocally that their concern for relations with the government are matched by their concern for growing demands inside China for justice and the rule of law.



Abbas's Police State

The Palestinian Authority is taking aggressive new measures to squelch dissent -- and the White House is missing in action.

President Barack Obama's administration has loudly touted its efforts to protect peaceful activists across the globe from regimes that would oppress them. On April 26, the White House issued an executive order to stop technology companies from helping Iran and Syria commit human rights abuses. The two countries have become what members of Congress have called "zones of electronic repression," where the regimes use modern technologies to crush those seeking democratic reforms.

But amid all this, Obama is missing an opportunity to promote positive change in a government over which the United States has much more leverage: Mahmoud Abbas's increasingly repressive fiefdom in the West Bank. On the same day as the White House issued its executive order, the Palestinian Ma'an News Agency reported an explosive story detailing how Palestinian officials have "quietly instructed Internet providers to block access to news websites whose reporting is critical of President Mahmoud Abbas."

This wasn't a rogue operation. All signs suggest the order to shut the website came straight from the top. The Ma'an article, citing a Palestinian official, claims that Palestinian Authority Attorney General Ahmad al-Mughni personally delivered the order but that he "was acting on instructions from higher up in the government -- either from the president's office or an intelligence director."

Mughni had already come under fire for other draconian efforts to muzzle free speech. In January 2012, Palestinian security forces arrested Al-Ahram reporter Khaled Amayreh for criticizing Abbas and referring to Hamas strongman Ismail Haniyeh as the "legitimate Palestinian prime minister." They also detained several journalists and bloggers for critical writing. Among them was Jamal Abu Rihan, a Palestinian blogger who ran the Facebook page "The people want an end to corruption."

The arrests go on. According to al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group, "It is difficult to know exactly how many people have been detained in violation of the right to freedom of expression because victims, in many cases, are charged with or accused of penal offenses to mask the political motivation behind their arrest." In some cases, arrests appear to be roundups of Hamas supporters. In others, they appear to be aimed at non-violent political opponents or critics of the Abbas regime.

The repression also extends beyond Palestinian outlets. In July 2009, the Palestinian Authority banned Al-Jazeera from operating in the West Bank after the news channel reported on allegations that Abbas and former Gaza security chief Mohammad Dahlan were accomplices in the death of Yasser Arafat. In January 2011, following its publication of internal documents related to Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations known as the "Palestine Papers," Palestinian security officers (among others) attempted to storm Al-Jazeera's Ramallah offices.

These and other incidents have had a chilling effect on reporting. As former Palestinian intelligence official Fahmi Shabaneh remarked in 2010, "al-Jazeera and other Arab media outlets... are afraid to publish anything that angers the Palestinian Authority."

Amid such accounts, in April 2011, Human Rights Watch issued a 35-page report titled "No News is Good News: Abuses Against Journalists by Palestinian Security Forces." It revealed that Palestinian journalists in the West Bank "have had their equipment confiscated and been arbitrarily detained, barred from traveling abroad, assaulted, and in one case, tortured, by Palestinian security services."

The watchdog conceded it couldn't identify clear "instructions from PA leaders to the security services" but noted that the "utter failure of the PA leadership to address the prevailing culture of impunity" seemed to reflect official policy.

Given the recent revelations from Ma'an, we can now be more definitive. It is clear that Mahmoud Abbas's government is pursuing a policy of quashing critical media coverage and stifling free speech on the Internet.

It appears that the PA has not only quashed critical voices through official channels, but at times has also resorted to using extrajudicial means. On Jan. 28, hackers took down InLightPress, a website that alleged that Abbas had ordered his security forces to tap his political opponents' phones. When InLightPress returned online, its editors claimed the cyber attack "came from the Palestinian Authority with the approval of President Abbas." The site further alleged that Abbas had created a "crisis cell" headed by Sabri Saidam, former head of the PA's ministry of telecommunications and information technology, to coordinate the attack.

A week later, on Feb. 3, InLightPress was hacked again. When it returned, its editors stated , "[W]e now know who [the hackers] are, and why they did it, and they know that we will not stop." In defiance, the site continued to publish scathing criticism of Abbas. In response, the Palestinian leadership blocked access to InLightPress in the territories. Days later, the Gaza-based website Amad, which also is critical of Abbas, reported that Palestinian users could not access its website because the Palestinian government had blocked it.

In an apparent confirmation of this campaign, an official from the Telecommunications and Information Technology Ministry was quoted by InLightPress as saying that the site was spreading "sedition and lies to break up the structure of Palestinian society." As a result, he claimed, the PA had the "right to defend... against this malicious and suspicious campaign."

Having a right is not the same as being in the right. The West Bank has now erupted in scandal. On April 25, the Palestinian Telecommunications Company (Paltel) issued a statement admitting it had "no choice except to abide by" orders from Palestinian officials to block websites. On April 26,  Palestinian Minister of Communication and Information Technology Mashour Abu Daka resigned, citing "personal reasons" for his departure. And on Saturday, long-time Abbas loyalist Hanan Ashrawi came out and publicly condemned the actions of her government.

But as InLightPress and Ma'an have both noted, Palestinians have no recourse here. There appears to be no law criminalizing what the PA has done. And Abbas conveniently deflects all criticism toward the Israelis, claiming that their presence makes him unable to introduce democratic reforms. As a result, the political environment in the West Bank looks increasingly like the Gaza Strip, where the Iran-backed terrorist group Hamas rules with an iron fist.

Obama's new executive order, which is designed to prevent human rights violations involving technology, may provide Palestinians with their best recourse for combating Abbas's attempts to dominate the political space in the West Bank. But the president has so far failed to live up to his lofty rhetoric. Just days after the scandal erupted, the president signed a waiver releasing $192 million in aid for the Palestinians that had been frozen by Congress on the grounds that it was "important for the security interests of the United States."

The president, however, issued the waver without first demanding that Abbas take measures to guarantee free speech in the West Bank. This was a lost opportunity. Only direct intervention by the United States will ensure greater freedom of expression for Palestinians engaged in this important struggle.