Media controls leave most Chinese unaware of activist Chen

9:12 PM, May 5, 2012   |    comments
Chen Guangcheng
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BEIJING - His real-life drama is edge-of-the-seat stuff: blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, long persecuted for helping victims of injustice, escapes the government-paid thugs who turned his village home into a high-walled prison.

He then dodges Chinese security in Beijing to take refuge inside the U.S. Embassy, delivering a crisis for top U.S. diplomat Hilary Clinton, and making headlines around the world. But not in China, where government censors still dictate what the media can report.

Even Chen's name - let alone his story - has been mostly kept out of domestic media, leaving most Chinese in the dark about a case that is informing global views of China. As in decades past, the mainland's traditional and social media must avoid the sensitive topics laid down in regular lists by the ruling Communist Party.

Chen, 40, a self-taught legal activist, received occasional favorable reports in state media until 2004. The next year he was detained at home, and later imprisoned, by authorities in eastern Shandong province. They were angered by his advocacy for thousands of women forced to have abortions and be sterilized as part of China's strict family planning policy. Only foreign media reported on Chen's four-year jail term and his often brutal house arrest over the past 19 months.

China's foreign ministry announced a likely solution to the diplomatic standoff Friday, with a statement saying Chen, now in a Beijing hospital, would be allowed to go abroad to study. Earlier Friday, four Beijing newspapers, all overseen by the city's Communist Party, broke the almost complete silence with critical editorials.

Assailing the "hostile forces of the West" that Chen represents, the Beijing Daily said Chen had "become a tool and a pawn for American politicians to blacken China." U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke was singled out for criticism.

No further editorials followed Saturday, as Chinese newspapers used only a short statement by Xinhua, the state news agency, on Chen's freedom to study abroad. Brief Xinhua or foreign ministry statements were all any Chinese media outlets - print, online or broadcast - have been using this week.

Getting Chen's story out to the world is a crowd of television crews, photographers and other journalists camped on the sidewalk opposite the north gate of central Chaoyang Hospital. About 100 yards away is the VIP wing, closely watched by Chinese uniformed and plainclothes security, where Chen began medical treatment Wednesday after leaving the U.S. Embassy.

Neighborhood residents seem to know little, if anything, about Chen. Li Xinhua, who started work Wednesday at an adjacent store selling dried fruit and nuts, had no idea what had attracted the press gathering that day -- and ever since. "China needs legal experts to help the disadvantaged, but I don't know who this man is," she said Friday on learning of Chen and his legal activism. "I'll wait for a government investigation and trust their decision."

Interestingly, newspaper vendor Yan Jinzhang said you cannot trust what you read in the papers. "All the news in Chinese media is censored," he said. "I don't know what to think of this man Chen Guangcheng. There's no detail about what he's done."

Friday's editorials, and the absence of any photograph of Chen, left Yan in no doubt of official opinion. "The government doesn't like him. There need to be changes to the system before someone like that can live freely in China," he said.

Chinese authorities "are determined to control public opinion on stories like this," said David Bandurski, an expert on Chinese media at the University of Hong Kong. "They try to 'decapitate' a story."

State controls on the Internet also make it difficult to find information on Chen. On some sites, it was not possible to search for such terms as "blind man" or "blind person," Bandurski said.

"All we have had is an editorial stance but no news or reporting of the Chen Guangcheng story," he said. "There are no facts, so most Chinese have no idea who he is."

Contributing: Sunny Yang

By Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY

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