Amnesty International protests in front of the Chinese Embassy in Brussels, 2009. (Thierry Roge / Courtesy Reuters)

On June 5, 1989, the day after the bloody crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square, Fang Lizhi, a prominent astrophysicist, and his wife, Li Shuxian, sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Fang, an intellectual and a strong proponent of democracy and human rights, and his wife were at the top of the Chinese government's wanted list. Fang was accused of being one of the "black hands" behind the student demonstrations. For more than a year, he and Li lived in the basement of the U.S. embassy while, outside, the Chinese authorities tracked down, detained, and imprisoned others suspected of so-called "counterrevolutionary crimes." In June 1990, they were allowed to leave China for the United States, where they lived in exile for the next 22 years. 

The negotiation over Fang's future was complicated by international response to the Tiananmen crackdown. In the United States, Congress was engaged in debates over annual renewal of China's most-favored-nation (MFN) status. On June 5, 1989, it also imposed an arms embargo on China, and seven governments, including the United States, levied economic sanctions on China. Ultimately, one of Deng Xiaoping's conditions for releasing Fang was the lifting of those sanctions. Much as they are today, human rights issues were clearly tied up with trade and domestic U.S. politics.

On April 6 of this year, Fang died in Tucson, Arizona. A few weeks later, the blind activist and dissident Chen Guangcheng surfaced at the U.S. embassy in China, creating yet another diplomatic crisis for officials in both Beijing and Washington (coming less than two months after regional police chief Wang Lijun sought refuge in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu). On April 22, Chen had made a dramatic escape from 19 months of house arrest in his home village in Linyi, Shandong province. Helped by supporters, he traveled more than 250 miles to Beijing to find refuge with the Americans. 

For the better part of two decades, Chen had been a vocal advocate for the disabled and other disadvantaged Chinese groups. In 2006, he helped expose coercive population control practices in Linyi, and was subsequently tried and convicted for "intentional damage of property and organizing people to block traffic." He was sentenced to four years and three months of imprisonment. During Chen's imprisonment, his family was subjected to threats, detention, surveillance, and verbal and physical abuse.

After six days inside the embassy compound, during which he told supporters and U.S. officials that he did not want to apply for asylum or go into exile, Chen left it. Washington and Beijing had reached an agreement to allow Chen to remain in China and study law there. He was escorted to a hospital for medical exams and for treatment of his foot, which he had injured during his escape.

Western media began to report contradictory and shifting stories about whether Chen had been pressured to leave the embassy. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China convened an emergency session, and even presidential hopeful Mitt Romney weighed in. "If these reports were true ... it's a dark day for freedom," he said. He accused the Obama administration of rushing into an agreement that did not give Chen and his family adequate protection. 

Considering the Fang and Chen cases side by side reveals how remarkably different the political landscape is for dissidents and activists in China today. The 1989 demonstrations began with calls to end corruption. They later expanded to an appeal for democratic reforms, something that had not been heard since 1978, when the human rights activist Wei Jingsheng declared that democracy was the "fifth modernization." He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. 

After Tiananmen, the only options for intellectuals like Fang and student leaders like Wang Dan were exile or prison. During most of the 1990s, China used imprisoned dissidents as bargaining chips: it parlayed permission to leave China for independent trade union leader Han Dongfang (1993) and political dissident Liu Qing (1992) to keep U.S. most-favored-nation status; it used the 1998 release of student leader Wang Dan to pressure the United States to withdraw its sponsorship of a UN resolution condemning China's human rights policies.

Today, China is a major global power. It is a member of the World Trade Organization, and a significant creditor of world governments, including that of the United States. The United States also gave China permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status in 2000, eliminating the annual MFN renewal debates. With the exception of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (signed in 1998, but not yet ratified), China has also ratified all the major international human rights treaties, including treaties that protect the rights of women, children, and ethnic minority groups. Instead of playing by the rules, however, China has remained hostile to any voice perceived as critical, fearful of the open free flow of information, and distrustful of its own people.

Without a functioning rule of law and independent courts, Chinese lawyers and activists continue to face severe constraints and risks, including physical violence, harassment, forced disappearances, illegal detentions, and prosecutions for trumped-up criminal charges. On April 12, two hundred new Chinese lawyers had to swear a revised oath of loyalty that prioritizes loyalty to the party leadership.

At the same time, the nature, scope, and impact of activism in China have changed, in large part due to the Internet. By March of 2012, the number of netizens in China was over 500 million (up from 16.9 million in 2000); the country boasts more than one billion mobile phone users, 190 million of whom have smartphones. Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) has more than 300 million users and is growing. Weibo users actively comment and report on corruption scandals, major transportation accidents, pollution, housing, and land disputes, and even illegality in the legislative processes.

As popular discontent and citizen activism have spread online, they have also spread in scope to include demands not only for political reforms but also for official accountability on environmental crises, rampant corruption, tainted consumer products, massive theft of community land, dangerous workplaces, and increasing social and economic equalities. 

Beijing may have constructed a state-of-the-art Great Firewall, but there will always be cracks. Even as the Linyi thugs were threatening and beating people who attempted to visit and support Chen and his family, the authorities were unable to prevent a video of Chen and his wife detailing their abuses from getting on the Internet. Neither could Beijing completely shut down earlier online campaigns such as the "Dark Glasses Portrait" campaign, which compiled photos of citizens wearing dark glasses in solidarity with Chen. Yet in the party propaganda chief's report to the National People's Congress in 2010, it was clear that China's comprehensive Internet management strategy insists on countering and controlling the very nature of the Internet: "As long as our country's Internet is linked to the global Internet, there will be channels and means for all sorts of harmful foreign information to appear."

As the handling of the negotiations and the public messaging of the Chen incident demonstrate, however, party authorities have also developed nuanced and sophisticated strategies to censor the media. Earlier, when the story broke that Chen had escaped, the Chinese authorities censored Chen's name, Linyi, embassy, and even the names of the nine members of the CPC Standing Committee. During Chen's initial hospitalization, it was clear that access to Chen and the flow of information to the outside world were also being controlled.

Yet, as Chen's story continues to develop, the challenges for China's activists and lawyers remain. In the early 2000s, lawyers were professionalizing and developing an identity distinct from legal cadres of the state. Those concerned about social justice wanted to work within the system, to help build China's legal framework. They tended to carefully distance themselves publicly from human rights and reform advocates. But over the past decade the Chinese authorities have demonstrated the limits of working within the system, and thus have contributed to radicalizing many of China's lawyers and activists. 

Ironically, instead of building the vibrant informed citizenry critical to tackling the massive environmental, social, and economic challenges facing the country, China continues to heighten its political and social control, even as it loses its ability to shore up the millions of cracks in its Great Firewall. The anticorruption protests in Wukan in late 2011 are a prime example of citizens demanding their rights and winning, as demonstrated through the images of 13,000 villagers peacefully demonstrating circulated on YouTube, the subsequent removal of the local officials, and new village elections. Another example should be the investigation of the massive corruption and abuses in Chen Guangcheng's village as requested of Premier Wen. 

The increasing number of mass protests, independent lawyers, and online citizen activists urgently demonstrates that the only way forward for China's future is one shaped through respect for the rights of the citizens. The question now is: Are the authorities reading the writing on the wall, or are they too blinded by their own self-interest for party survival at all costs?


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