Today, CNN posted a video in which they accompanied actor Christian Bale on a trip to Linyi to visit Chen Guangcheng, where he was promptly (and predictably) roughed-up and kicked out by thugs. They’ve since also posted a follow-up interview with Bale about it.
Anyway, as you might imagine given Bale’s star power, this story has gotten some play today, despite the ongoing craziness in Wukan and the news that Sina Weibo and other Beijing-based microblog providers must implement real-name requirements for all users. (This, I think, will be the death of Weibo as a political platform in China, but there will be time to talk about that later).
The ‘Batman Searches for Chen Guangcheng’ story has also elicited a number of negative reactions on Twitter. There seem to be two main criticisms of it; the first being that CNN was making news here rather than reporting it, and that Bale might just have been doing it as a publicity stunt. Both true, and yet to both I say: who cares?
CNN should not be “making news” by facilitating a confrontation between Bale and Linyi authorities? I’m not captain journalism or anything, but that’s probably true. They say Bale’s camp approached them about it, and we’ll probably never know the full background, but I don’t see it as particularly important. The method employed by CNN may have been unethical by journalistic standards, but the result they achieved via that method is exactly the point of journalism: getting attention to problems that people wouldn’t otherwise hear about. Now, do the ends justify the means? Not always, but here, even if they don’t, I don’t care. CNN has no credibility to lose in China anyway — see their ridiculous doctoring of photos during the riots in Tibet in 2008 — and aside from “you broke the rules” I don’t really see the harm in what they did here.
Bale is just making a PR move after accusations of being a propagandist for appearing in Zhang Yimou’s Flowers of War? It’s certainly possible. But again, why does this matter? A good deed done for selfish reasons is still a good deed. If letting people know about Chen’s case is what happens when Christian Bale gets selfish, I hope he spends the rest of his career so self-absorbed that he has to set up permanent housing in Linyi. (Take that, Relativity Media!)
Ah, but is it a good deed? There have also been some suggestions that Bale’s stunt could bring harm to Chen and his family, or hurt the chances of him being released. Of course, we can’t know what’s going on in the heads of the officials who are holding Chen and his family, but I’m not to worried about this, for two reasons.
- Chen, by law a free man, and his entire family have already been locked away for a year with no charges or legal basis. They’ve been beaten and denied even the most basic access to, well, basically anything. And that’s just what we know has happened. What could Bale’s visit possibly do to make things worse?
- “Quiet diplomacy,” historically speaking, doesn’t seem to work particularly well on these high profile cases. Moreover, Ai Weiwei’s release showed that with a bit of star power, a Western media firestorm can (potentially) influence things for the better. Of course, the personalities and the cases are different, but as I see it, Bale bringing attention to the subject can only help. If the Chinese government was going to release Chen on its own, they would have done it when he was released from prison. No one was following his case then, nor did it become big in the West until this fall, at which point Chen and his family had been under house arrest for half a year already. Keeping quiet and hoping the government will do the right thing may work sometimes, but it won’t work here.
Hopefully that makes sense. It’s been a long few days and we’re off again for a filming trip this weekend, so if I’ve made some crucial logical error here I won’t be able to address it until after we get back.