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Chen's case divides activists

May 8, 2012

Rights campaigners disagree over whether blind dissident's bid for freedom will inspire similar efforts or if it's a one-off

Raymond Li

May 07, 2012

Mainland rights activists are divided on whether blind dissident Chen Guangcheng would inspire future civil-rights campaigns.

Some hail his dramatic escape from captivity and bid for freedom as a galvanising influence, while others say Chen's case is exceptional and could not be replicated.

Wang Xiaodong, a Sichuan-based activist campaigning to expose substandard school buildings that led to numerous deaths in Sichuan's earthquake in May 2008, said Chen's escape dealt a heavy blow to the so-called "stability maintenance mechanism".

The mechanism allows local government officials and state security agencies to control dissidents and activists using various methods.

Wang said Chen had become an inspiration to activists for various causes.

"More people are now sympathising with him [Chen] and looking to him for inspiration when they need to stand up to injustice," Wang said.

Chen's ordeal also showed that mainlanders are vulnerable to injustice if their civil rights are not fully protected, he said.

"[Mainlanders] now realise that such injustices could affect anyone in the broader community."

On April 22, Chen made a daring night-time escape from house arrest in the village of Dongshigu in Shandong province with the help of civil-rights activists such as He Peirong.

His escape came after months of preparations, He said.

Wu Gan, a rights activist who tried to visit Chen several times during his house arrest, said Chen's actions could easily gain popular support, as Chen did not have a strong political agenda, unlike jailed Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo.

Chen, a self-taught lawyer, first gained attention for his campaign against Linyi city officials' use of forced abortions in enforcing Beijing's controversial one-child policy.

He was later jailed for four years from August 2006 to September 2010 and placed under house arrest after his release.

"The public cares about Chen because they are concerned that the heavy-handed approach used against Chen could befall anyone if no one stands up," said Wu, a rights campaigner better known as Tu Fu on the internet.

Wu said that although he shared Chen's fears about potential government retribution, the fear of such repercussions could be overcome when one believed justice would prevail.

Lei Chuang, a postgraduate student in Shanghai who has been fighting against discrimination towards Hepatitis B sufferers, said the risks involved in petitioning government agencies and campaigning in public could make him rethink his actions.

Chen was only forced to fight for legal rights because local officials had ignored his calls to end forced abortions, Lei said. But he also said Chen's case might not have much social impact, as it could hardly be aped by other campaigners.

"Don't forget that the authorities only began to look at his plight after he entered the US embassy and his case subsequently became an international issue," he said. "How likely is it that could happen to other activists?"

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