I have long wondered exactly what role money and corruption played in Chen Guangcheng and his family’s de-facto imprisonment in Dongshigu. In the video Chen released yesterday, he addresses this question directly.
A full English translation of this video can be found here, and I recommend you read all of it, but here is the relevant section:
I remember when they humiliated me last August in the Cultural Revolutionary style, they told me, you said in your video that 30 million yuan was spent on (your house arrest), that was the 2008 figure — now the amount is more than double that and that’s not even including bribery money for officials in Beijing. Some of the hired guards have complained that they make so little since most of the money has gone to others.
It’s been a great opportunity for all of them to make money. As I understand, the township gives team leaders money to hire guards and each guard is supposed to get 100 yuan per day. Those team leaders tell potential hires that they get only 90 of the 100 yuan. Since most farmers get 50 to 60 yuan working in the field, and the guard job is considered safe and comfortable with meals included, of course people are willing to take it. In just one team, with more than 20 guards, the team leader gets 200 yuan extra per day. How corrupt is that?
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that corruption was involved, of course, but from what Chen describes it sounds as though part of the motivation for Chen and family’s detention could be economic. Or, to be more specific, part of the motivation for Chen’s continued detention could be economic. I imagine the initial decision to keep him under house arrest was motivated primarily by petty vindictiveness, but from Chen’s description, it seems his detention has created an economy of sorts in his small village and beyond.
This is Dongshigu, the village where Chen and his family live. As you can see (note the scale in the map) it is quite small, and surrounded by farmland. As Chen himself notes, his imprisonment has created hundreds of well-paying jobs for local villagers, not to mention plenty of opportunities to make money on the side (I’m sure all those guards get hungry). As Chen also explains, anyone above the bottom of the guard organization is probably making additional money on the side by skimming from the money that’s handed down to pay the guards.
In other words, there’s an economic impetus for many people in the village participate in and perpetuate the imprisonment of the Chen family. And in a small farming village, the difference between 50 RMB a day and 90 RMB a day can be enormous. It’s no surprise the Linyi authorities haven’t had any trouble finding guards or — as far as I’m aware — met much resistance from villagers in the surrounding area.
But the village economy is small potatoes (figuratively) compared to what it sounds like the Linyi officials have done at higher levels. Within the Linyi budget, it seems the folks tasked with “maintaining stability” have been able to draw huge amounts of money to fund the Chen family’s continued imprisonment, and it’s doubtful anyone there is interested in seeing that budget shrink again. So, in addition to the legal risks associated with releasing Chen Guangcheng, many officials may also be worried releasing Chen would result in massive cuts to the local stability maintenance budget. With the exception of Ron Swanson, who is fictional, government officials in any country tend to want to maintain or increase the funding for their departments, and the only way security officials in Linyi can do that is if they continue to hold Chen Guangcheng.
Moreover, from Chen’s description of what his captors have said, it certainly sounds like Linyi officials are paying bribes to higher officials in Beijing to turn a blind eye, and that puts them in a rather dangerous position. Anytime they decide to stop paying those bribes, they risk some disgruntled Beijing official actually doing something about Chen’s detention as revenge for having cut off the flow of cash into his pocket. And even if they were to release Chen’s family first and then stop sending the bribe money, there’s no guarantee Beijing officials wouldn’t be annoyed, and no reason why Linyi couldn’t still be held responsible.
Of course, there are even stronger political reasons for Linyi officials to detain Chen and his family, and for the central government to pretend they don’t know what’s happening (which I expect they will continue to do). But it seems that Chen’s detention has also become a way for some officials in Linyi and Beijing to line their pockets, and that could be just as difficult a hurdle to overcome as the politics.
All of this raises an interesting question: what happens now that Chen is free? In the short term, it certainly seems Linyi is doubling-down on its extralegal detention strategy, as members of Chen’s family seem to remain under close guard. But in the longer term, things are less clear. With Chen free, continuing to hold his innocent family may become a significant a political liability, and the advantages to restricting their freedom when Chen is already speaking freely about his imprisonment and treatment seem minimal. Chen’s escape will most certainly shift the political benefit/risk balance in holding his family, and that’s something Linyi officials are probably already wondering about.
That said, Chen’s escape doesn’t do much of anything to change the economic situation. A lot of people from farmers all the way up to high level local and national officials stand to lose significant sources of income if the Chen security detail is downsized or eliminated completely. How much of a factor will that play in Linyi officials’ decision making if Beijing doesn’t decide to step in and make the decision for them? It’s hard to say.
On a somewhat related note: I strongly encourage everyone to follow the stories of Chen’s family, especially Chen Kegui, and the activists who helped him escape, especially He Peirong, who has not been on Twitter or Gchat since yesterday morning and is apparently under arrest in Nanjing.