Tag Archives: Injustice

Translation: ‘How to Break the Cycle of Black Jails’

Caixin’s recent package of stories (which I came across via the indispensable Sinocism) includes this opinion piece by professor Yu Jianrong. He’s a bit light on actual solutions aside from the usual (totally reform everything), but if nothing else, the piece is an excellent exposition of exactly why the petition system “works” the way it does.

How to Break the Vicious Cycle of ‘Intercepting Petitioners’

“Intercepting petitioners” refers to local officials using various measures to intercept people attempting to petition at the [provincial] or central offices and forcibly taking them back to their hometowns. In China’s current political climate, the intercepting of petitioners has long been an open secret, an “unwritten rule” of petition office stability management work, an uncivilized but tacitly accepted rule for government work, and an important part of the job of those who “greet petitioners.” Whenever the two congresses or National Day or some other “sensitive” time rolls around, many additional ‘petitioner interception’ workers come to Beijing to intercept petitioners from their local area to prevent petitioners from staying in Beijing and increasing the number of complaints about their locale on the record.

Reality shows us that there are three main downsides to these petitioner-intercepting activities: first, there is a high economic cost, and this has already become a heavy burden on some local governments, especially lower-level governments. Sometimes, the money it takes to intercept a petitioner would be enough money to actually solve the petitioner’s problem.

The second is that intercepting petitioners has serious political consequences; it violates the petitioners’ basic rights, directly cuts out the petitioning system, and has a definite draining effect on national legitimacy. What’s even more serious is that some local governments have made the ‘petitioner intercepting’ system even more effective by giving “perks” to provincial and central petition office authorities in return for information about local petitioners that makes it easier to intercept them. So, even if a petitioner has entered the petition office and registered their complaint, it’s possible to change what’s on the register by spending money. This is not only brazenly preventing information from reaching the highest-level authorities and deceiving the central [government], it is also creating a new source of corruption within the system itself.

The third is that because of petitioner-intercepting activities, the rulers’ attempts to eliminate social conflicts via the petitioning system are ineffective, and [petitioner-intercepting] can even become a source of new social conflicts. Petitioners are the ones who most directly bear the consequences of petitioner-intercepting; in their attempts to evade the pursuit of local government interceptors, some are ruined in the process, and when they finally reach Beijing or the provincial capital and then [still] get intercepted, they have no one left to turn to. And more horribly, some petitioners are beaten, detained, or even sent to reeducation through labor (劳教). For this reason, although intercepting petitioners temporarily reduces the number of petitioners in Beijing or at provincial petition offices, protecting the “social stability” of the capital or provincial cities, but it cannot address the roots of the problem, and instead it just creates more conflict.

‘Meeting petitioners’ and ‘intercepting petitioners’ ((“Meeting” and “Intercepting” are both pronounced “jie” so this is sort of a play on words)) are both important reflections of the variation in today’s national petitioning system. Petition officers and officials, local governments, and the central government all participate, using the system as a platform for a kind of game in which they attempt to maximize their own interests. But because of this they have fallen into problems [like the three Yu just listed and those below], this can be called the ‘petitioning paradox.’

First of all, there are the many predicaments the central government level [authorities] have already run into. When the CCP first established its regime, the highest-level policymakers created the petition system, with many political goals including deepening the regime’s legal legitimacy, resolving severe social problems, implementing policy and social mobilization, and also controlling lower-level officials in an unconventional way. However, after its establishment, a serious consequence was that problems began to pile up at the central level. In 1963, the Central Committee and the State Council admitted this problem in “Announcement regarding strengthening petitioning work,” and called on provincial level political and Party organs to strengthen their guidance, saying that local level organizations should do their best to resolve problems locally. From then on, methods for investigating responsibility for petition complaints became more and more complex, and more and more severe. The central government was trying to use pressure on local political and party organizations to stem the flow of petitioners coming to Beijing and increase the effectiveness and realize the goals of the petition system.

However, for the sake of their own political interests, local governments used all kinds of methods to alleviate the pressure coming from the central government, which created a shift away from the actual goals of the petitioning system and which has ultimately resulted in a shift of the pressure back to central authorities. The central government wants problems resolved at the grassroots level, meaning that it hopes the local government will actually solve the petitioner’s complaint, but after levels and levels of pressure, the biggest result is that the local government wants to use whatever methods it can to prevent petitioners from registering in Beijing.

Strict pursuit of the responsibility for petition complaints has forced local governments at all levels to make the number of petitioners into an important indicator of performance, so the blame is passed downwards, so local authorities intercept petitioners and bribe officials to reduce the number of petitions on file, and even detain petitioners and sentence them or their associates to forced labor or even jail time to suppress the number of petitioners. It’s not that the local government doesn’t want to resolve the actual problem; some problems are caused by the local government’s poor conduct or lack of action, and others are caused by central government policies that really can’t be controlled by the local government. Illogical power structures and twisted mechanisms of reward encourage local officials to choose the simple and crude methods of enforcement, often creating greater resentment [in the process] and even giving some irrational petitioners a real reason to complain after they have been beaten up.

Petition officials can completely recognize the conflicts and pressures between local and central authorities described above; they use these pressures and conflicts to protect their own interests, even gaining benefits outside of the system, that becomes a rational choice. Because of this, the more oppressive local governments are towards petitioners, the greater the power of the petitioners is. Many people believe the logic of this industry is whatever the opponent (the local government) fears is what you should do. They not only persist in going to Beijing to petition, they endeavor to use all sorts of unusual methods to petition, for example going to embassies and consulates, visiting the housing of government leaders, and even extreme methods like jumping into rivers or self-immolating, creating more political pressure.

The result is that as local governments use even more severe methods to deal with petitioners, the complaints of petitioners become more extreme, creating a vicious cycle.Because of this, the petitioning system has gone from useless to harmful; from reducing pressure to actively increasing it.

If you want to completely resolve the mess of petitioner-intercepting and break the vicious cycle described above, the short-term solution is to give party and government departments at every level less pressure and to untie the petition system. After that, legal reforms would need to strengthen the emergency powers granted to judicial authorities and use the judicial system to clear up old cases. In the long-term, there will need to be radical political changes that completely reform the petition system.

Specifically, it would be possible to collect the currently scattered resources of the petition system under the auspices of all levels of the People’s Congress and use that to oversee things. This would not only give the petition office a new body of authority, it would also give it the necessary accountability, and at the same time help move People’s Congress delegates towards full-time duties and create a new substantial condition [for being an NPC delegate].

Fundamentally, only with political reform and establishing a government with powers that are weighed and controlled, with an independent and fair judiciary, with mechanisms for the democratic election of representatives, and with organizations and channels for all levels of society to voice their interests can there arise an equal and harmonious modern society.

In Brief: Who’s Really Disappearing Reporters

At this point probably everyone is familiar with the “Bijie Boys” and most of you are probably also aware of how that turned out for the reporter who broke the story. The fact that a reporter would be held for reporting a story no one disputes the veracity of should surprise exactly no one, but there is one aspect of this story I’d like to explore a little bit.

Now, before I start, I want to say that I love Beijing Cream. I find the site both informative and funny and it has been one of my favorite China blogs for a while now. Moreover, I think every writer there is probably at least familiar with the argument I’m about to make, so I’m really just using the Beijing Cream article as an example here. In fact, I suspect Anthony Tao might actually agree with what I’m about to write, but going into all this was rather outside the scope of his article, so he understandably didn’t. Anyway, my point here is that this article shouldn’t be taken as a critique of Tao or Beijing Cream in general.

That said, this section of Tao’s take on the Li Yuanlong’s arrest jumped out at me:

What we shouldn’t assume is that higher levels of government had anything to do with this, considering no one — and I mean no one — would be dumb enough to think punishing a journalist here would be a good idea. If there’s one thing we know about how business is done in these fourth-tier, hinterland-type counties, it’s that the powerful can do whatever the fuck they want, and someone with some power in this case must have decided to act out on his vendetta.

While the latter half of this paragraph is undoubtedly true, I do disagree to a certain extent with the first half. On the face of it, of course, it is quite true: I’d bet an awful lot of money that the decision to detain Li was made and executed by local officials who were not in any contact with higher authorities.

But I wouldn’t say it’s really true that higher authorities had nothing to do with it. The central government’s inability to control, or perhaps lack of interest in controlling, local governments fosters and facilitates an I-am-king-around-here attitude in local officials, and that inevitably leads to stories like this. Central authorities didn’t order the arrest of Li, no, but they have for decades presided over and molded a system that allows local authorities to do things like arrest reporters with minimal consequences, and often no consequences at all.

In fact, the system often offers de-facto rewards to local officials who keep their regions quiet by quieting anyone publicizing negative stories, because the officials that get promoted are often the ones who come from the most “stable,” “harmonious” districts. Officials have long-since learned that the surest route to apparent “harmony” is threatening, arresting, coercing, and censoring the people who would spread negative stories about their districts — reporters, petitioners, protesters, bloggers, etc. This way, higher authorities don’t often have to order the detention of people like Li — they have set the system up in such a way that people like Li can be silenced without anyone in the central government getting their hands dirty.

Moreover, if I — some random dude living halfway across the world — am aware that Li Yuanlong has been detained and “vactioned” at this point, certainly the authorities theoretically responsible for overseeing this sort of thing should be aware of this particular case by now. If they disapproved, undoing it shouldn’t take more than a phone call — the story could have been killed before I even woke up this morning, probably — and yet something tells me that phone call isn’t coming. Even if this case requires a few extra days to work its way through the bureaucracy, I’d be willing to bet it won’t; come Monday, I’d bet Li will still be on vacation. (Though I hope I’m wrong; something tells me this “vacation” isn’t all that pleasant).

(It didn’t take the authorities long to respond to this local problem by sacking the creepy official in question. Somehow, though, I doubt that will happen to the men behind Li’s detention).

I’ve written about the this-is-a-local-issue argument before, because it’s something you hear quite frequently when discussing injustices in China. And while it is, to an extent, true, I think it’s also important to elucidate the higher-level indifference and the systemic structures that makes these kind of local injustices possible year in and year out.

In Brief: Ai Weiwei Denied His Day in Court, Legal Advisor Disappeared

In news so depressingly predictable that it’s almost not worth writing about, Ai Weiwei’s legal advisor Liu Xiaoyuan is apparently being held by State Security after being summoned for a meeting at 8:30 PM last night. Although Ai Weiwei’s Fake Studio tax appeal case opens in court today, Liu Xiaoyuan has not yet returned, and his phone is turned off. Ai has also been informed by police that he is not allowed in court.

Honestly, I am running out of things to say when this sort of thing happens. It’s a move as obvious as it is depressing, and it’s indication number 9,343,245 that however fast China’s economy is developing, the real rule of law is still a terribly long way off. One wonders how government spokesmen manage to choke out the words, “China is a nation with the rule of law,” even as this sort of “justice” is being served.

I also wonder what, exactly, Beijing is doing here. They clearly have no intention of giving Ai his day in court, and they can’t possibly think that anyone outside China will consider whatever verdict they reach fair when Ai’s principal lawyer was essentially kidnapped the night before his court date. So why not just arrest him and be done with it? Or hand him a summons informing him the court has found him guilty of tax evasion in absentia or something. I understand someone probably feels the government needs to make a show of doing this the right way, but security forces obviously don’t agree.

If you’re going to put on a dog-and-pony show to try to fool people into believing China has the rule of law, it’s best to at least allow the occasional dog or pony into the building, isn’t it?

The Government Taking the Easy Way Out

By now, hopefully everyone has heard that Al-Jazeera English has been forced to close its China bureau after the Chinese government refused to renew correspondent Melissa Chan’s visa or grant one to a replacement correspondent. The Committee to Protect Journalists has already issued a statement condemning Chan’s expulsion, as has the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China.

Chan herself has told reporters she’s not authorized to comment, but I’m sure she will be glad to see the attention Al-Jazeera English’s expulsion is already getting. And we may also take some small consolation in the fact that she herself is apparently moving on to some pretty cool things and will remain with Al-Jazeera English.

That said, the expulsion of Chan and Al-Jazeera is a despicable act of cowardice on the part of China’s government. Although no particular reason was given, this section of the FCCC’s statement provides some clues as to the motivation behind denying Chan’s visa:

Chinese officials had expressed anger at a documentary the channel aired last November. Melissa Chan did not even play a part in making that documentary. They have also expressed unhappiness with the general editorial content on Al Jazeera English and accused Ms Chan of violating rules and regulations that they have not specified.

So Al-Jazeera’s crimes include airing a documentary that China didn’t like — not one that was factually incorrect, mind you, just one they didn’t like — and violating unspecified rules and regulations. Neither of these are good reasons to expel anyone from any country, but the latter is particularly concerning because it seems to be an increasingly common tactic used by the Chinese government to attempt to bully foreign reporters and keep them from covering certain stories. In 2011, for example, some reporters who covered the “Jasmine Revolution” protests were told that they had broken the law by failing to obtain prior permission to report there. Journalists outside Chaoyang Hospital reporting on the Chen Guangcheng case were recently told the same thing.

In fact, China’s regulations on foreign reporters contain no such requirement as far as I can see (original Chinese version). To conduct an interview or reporting, foreign reporters must have the prior consent of anyone they’re interviewing — which is common sense — but there is no requirement that they must apply to anyone else for permission to cover anything.

Of course, the fact that Chinese authorities are apparently operating outside the framework of their own laws will not be news to anyone, least of all anyone who followed Chan’s excellent coverage of China during her five years here (that link leads to just a small portion of it). She served as a voice for the voiceless, often putting herself in dangerous positions to get stories of injustice out in the open.

And that’s ultimately exactly why she — and Al-Jazeera English in general — won’t be allowed to continue reporting in China. Al-Jazeera was giving a voice to people the Chinese government doesn’t want heard — prisoners, petitioners, and regular people from all walks of life who had stories they wanted told. In doing this, it really was operating no differently than other foreign media outlets, or even domestic media outlets (especially the gutsier ones like the Caixin and Southern Media publications). That is, after all, what journalists are supposed to do. As George Orwell once wrote:

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.

Of course, there will be some people who will attempt to justify Al-Jazeera English’s expulsion by saying the network was too negative. There will even be people who say that the network is just a piece of the larger Western conspiracy to smear China ((an especially ridiculous claim given that Al-Jazeera is decidedly not Western and still considered the terrorist network by many ill-informed people in the US.)). I find the idea that a media organization should attempt to orchestrate some artificial “balance” between positive and negative stories patently ridiculous ((among other things, whether a story is positive or not depends largely on who you ask)), but even if you believe that, it’s beside the point here.

Because the truth is that kicking Melissa out of China is just the Chinese government taking the easy way out. The coward’s way out. Chan wasn’t reporting about how the government needed to be overthrown; for the most part, her negative reports concerned specific local problems that probably could have been resolved if the central government put much effort into attempting a resolution. Black jails, for example, have been a stain on China’s reputation for years, and both foreign and domestic media have reported on the issue before. I find it impossible to believe that if the government were truly interested in closing black jails in Beijing, it would be incapable of doing so. The government could close all the black jails in Beijing if it wanted. But it’s easier to attack the people who report about it; put pressure on the domestic reporters (or just censor their stories) and threaten or expel the foreign ones. Solving the problem would be harder.

This is an approach we’ve seen over and over again, most recently with the Chinese government’s recent exhortations that the US Embassy must take steps to prevent Chinese citizens from entering its consulates, as if that were the real problem. Chen Guangcheng and Wang Lijun ran to US consulates because, although they came from entirely different backgrounds, both men had no faith in the ability of China’s government to protect them. If China wanted to prevent citizens from fleeing to the US embassy, it might start by reforming its own byzantine petition system, which almost never resolves petitioners’ problems and is responsible for the existence of the aforementioned black jails. But reforming the petition system would be really hard. Writing editorials condemning the US for interfering in China’s internal affairs? That’s really easy.

China’s government is not alone in its pursuit of the easy short-term non-solution over the difficult long-term real solution, but the specifics do make China’s case particularly disheartening. Chan is the first journalist to be expelled from China since 1998 — although China has been expelling journalists since at least the 1980s — but given the way journalists covering the Chen Guangcheng case have been treated ((Cordoned off, press credentials and IDs photographed, dozens called in and accused of breaking the law, etc.)) one wonders if she will be the only reporter forced out this year.

In any event, the expulsion of Al-Jazeera English is depressing and ominous, and it will negatively impact the reporting atmosphere in China. I had the good fortune get to know Melissa a little bit before her expulsion, and China is worse off without her coverage. Her removal is an embarrassment, the childish retribution of a government it seems is perpetually more concerned with silencing problems than with solving them.

Chengguan, Hard at Work

Another entry in the vein of illogical law enforcement. My wife passed this video along earlier today. It’s actually a couple months old now, but still making the rounds on Chinese social media, and it has racked up more than two million views.

Note: To be fair, I’m not entirely sure the men in this video are chengguan (city management officials), as the video isn’t clear enough to read anything on their uniforms, but they seem to be performing the duties of chengguan and are identified as chengguan in the comments, so let’s just assume they are.

http://player.youku.com/player.php/sid/XMzU4OTA3NzA0/v.swf

Nothing about this is surprising, of course, but it’s worth noting the the ridiculousness of this kind of “enforcement strategy,” which happens all across China with alarming frequency. Chengguan are tasked with keeping the city’s streets clean and ensuring that vendors are in the proper places, with the proper permits. Frequently, they’re not, and I do understand China’s desire to regulate this (in theory), but the practice often leaves much to be desired.

The kind of enforcement we see in this video doesn’t solve any problems. All it does is create problems. Where previously there was a calm woman on the street selling fruit, now there is an angry woman on the street, a small crowd of onlookers, and a huge mess because the chengguan decided to dump her fruit all over the sidewalk. The chengguan have effectively turned what was a regular street in China into a mess of emotion and spilled fruit. What has society gained from this?

Nothing, obviously. The chengguan don’t even gain anything personally, aside from the minimal ego boost that comes from bullying people you have some power over. It is a needless show of force, the desperate demonstration of an insecure bully who is terrified that if the people’s fear ever subsides for a moment they’re going to see just how pathetic he really is.

(Another sign of the times: in the video comments, some commenters have pointed out that these guys are actually quite restrained for chengguan; they may have stomped and dumped out her baskets, but at least they didn’t physically attack her. Disturbingly, this is enough to pass for ‘restraint’ these days.)

Leaking State Secrets is Way Easier Than You Think

In the midst of the Chen Guangcheng story exploding, I came across this story ((Apologies, I don’t remember where I first saw it, probably via someone on Twitter)). It is not related to Chen Guangcheng, but it is so absurd that I thought it was worth sharing (and it’s been too long since we ran a translation anyway).

Translation: Fujian Man Sentenced for Filming Secret Military Plane

Mr. Huang, a disabled man from Yongtai, didn’t listen to the warnings of passers-by, and filmed and uploaded video of a military aircraft at the Jixu airport. Little did he know he was violating the law. Several days ago, the Yongtai Country Court found Huang guilty of intentionally leaking national secrets and sentenced him to one year and two months in prison, with a suspended sentence of 1.5 years.

In August of 2009, Huang was driving his cart to Cangshan district, to visit his son who was working in Huangshan. As he drove past Yixu airfield, he got curious, and used a digital camera to film an Yixu road sign, the airfield, and several military planes. As he was filming, a pedestrian warned him: “You can’t film that, they’ll arrest you,” but Huang didn’t care, and kept filming, in total filming for over one minute.

After he returned to Yongtai, he put the video onto his public [QQ, probably] space online, and titled the video: “On the way to Huangshan, Fuzhou, I passed Yixu airport military planes, and got very excited seeing them up close, because it was my first time seeing a plane, so I filmed them…” He also wrote: “I am not a spy!” Before it was deleted by the relevant organs, this video was viewed more than 15,000 times.

This video was appraised by the Air Force’s Fuzhou secrecy committee, and found three classified items and three secret items, constituting serious breaches of national and military security.

The Yongtai Court held that the accused Mr. Huang had violated regulations in the Protecting National Secrets Law, as he clearly knew that his video of Yixu airport related to classified military secrets, yet he still distributed it via the internet, which is serious enough to be considered intentional dissemination of state secrets. In light of his confession, his expression of regret, and his disability, the court handed down the aforementioned sentence.

Comments

Now, it goes without saying that Mr. Huang certainly had some opportunities to avoid his predicament here, but I still find it ridiculous. Warnings from a random pedestrian or no, was it so irrational for Huang to assume that secret military vehicles might be kept somewhere that isn’t visible to anyone passing by on the road? Might the authorities at least have posted a sign that said “No Photography” or something? Railroading some poor farmer who got excited at seeing army planes seems like a poor way to protect national security. I’m not a general ((Yes, my name is Custer, har har shut up.)) or anything, but if those planes were important military secrets, maybe they should be hidden? If a disabled man can stumble across them on his way to somewhere totally different, how secret could they really be?

The story reminds me of my own most recent brush with this kind of illogical mentality. Several weeks ago, I went to one of the Beijing offices that deals with petitioners to get a pickup shot for our film. It’s totally tangential, and I just needed a shot of the building, from the street, for a couple seconds — just enough to show that the place exists. Predictably, though, my footage was spiced up by a plainclothes officer who came running over and explained to me that I couldn’t take any pictures of the building because it was a national organ, and therefore a secret.

Of course I’m grateful that he was kind enough to turn that boring footage into something a bit more interesting, but the logic behind this baffles me. We’re talking about a gigantic building with a clear sign labeling what it is in the middle of one of the most populous cities on earth. It’s clearly labeled in online maps. It has its own official website. What damage could an exterior photograph of the building possibly do?

That’s not the point, of course. It’s all about control, not logic.

In Chen Guangcheng Case, Following the Money

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.