Fight to control the Chen Guangcheng story

Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng at in Beijing, 2 May Mr Chen says he is waiting to apply for a visa so he can go and study in the US

Chinese blind activist Chen Guangcheng is waiting to find out if he will be allowed to leave the country - but the battle over who he is, and what he stands for, continues.

For a small band of friends and supporters inside the country - and many outside - he is a hero who has stood up to the Chinese government.

That government has not told its people the full story about this case, apparently worried about the sympathy the activist could attract.

The Communist Party does not want any distractions as it gears up for a once-in-a-decade leadership change later this year.

It is not the only organisation trying to steer this story in one direction. The United States government also appears to be putting a favourable spin on its role in this affair.

'Chen who?'

Many of China's comments on this case have come from Xinhua, the state-run news agency, or the country's foreign ministry.

They have released some facts about Mr Chen, but not the full tale of his escape from house arrest and flight to the US embassy in Beijing, where he spent six days before coming out last week.

Chen Guangcheng

Chen Guangcheng (file photo 2006)
  • Born 12 Nov 1971
  • Nicknamed the "Barefoot Lawyer"
  • Went blind as a child
  • Campaigned for women forced to have abortions or sterilisation under China's one-child-per-family policy
  • Jailed for four years in 2006 for disrupting traffic and damaging property
  • Released from jail in 2010 and placed under house arrest
  • Daughter barred from school during much of 2011, reports say
  • Escapes house arrest, April 2012

If the intention was to keep Chinese people in the dark about Chen Guangcheng, the authorities have succeeded.

On the street few people have even heard the 40-year-old activist's name.

"What's he called?" said one person.

"Chen who?" was another comment.

Many government pronouncements have focused on criticising the Americans for their role in helping Mr Chen enter their embassy.

"[The US side] should learn from the incident in a serious and responsible attitude and reflect on its own policy and moves," said Liu Weimin, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, at the beginning of this affair.

It was a theme taken up by a number of Chinese newspapers.

"If people choose to turn a blind eye to China's development and irresponsibly criticise China, or even interfere in China's internal affairs, they are actually hindering China's development and we have to question their intentions," read a comment piece in the China Daily.

Some Chinese publications have written pieces that attempt to question Mr Chen's ability to provide legal advice.

"As a disabled man, Chen hasn't received a higher education," wrote Liu Yang in the Global Times newspaper.

"His lack of comprehensive education and knowledge about rights activism has further strengthened his mistaken beliefs."

'Cat and mouse'

Start Quote

They're just playing around with him - like a cat with a mouse”

End Quote Sima Pingbang blogger

Sima Pingbang is a blogger and writer on rural issues, and has written a number of articles critical of Mr Chen.

Mr Sima visited the village of Dongshigu in Shandong province, where the blind activist was detained in his home for more than 18 months before escaping.

Mr Sima believes the activist has been used as a pawn by the US to attack China.

"The United States shouldn't have taken a Chinese citizen into their embassy in the first place," he said.

"Then they acted irresponsibly by pushing him out again. They're just playing around with him - like a cat with a mouse."

But the Chinese government's attempt to control the story has not been completely successful.

Trademark dark glasses
Amnesty International activists take part in a protest in support of Chen Guangcheng, on 9 May, 2012 in front of China's embassy in Paris Outside China there seems to be much sympathy with Mr Chen

Comments on Chinese micro-blogging sites show there are many people in the country who know about Chen Guangcheng and sympathise with him and his attempts to expose forced abortions.

"He got rid of the state security, entered into the US embassy and will be able to live well in the land of freedom," read one micro-blog comment.

The activist's name might be banned, but people have shown their support for him by using Mr Chen's image - with trademark dark glasses - as their profile pictures.

Outside China, there seems to be much sympathy with Mr Chen and a little criticism about the way he was allowed to leave the embassy by American officials.

Writing for Forbes, Paul Roderick Gregory said that if Mr Chen had been pressured to leave the US embassy, "the United States should be ashamed".

To stop people drawing that conclusion is perhaps why US diplomats and politicians have been stressing they only followed Mr Chen's wishes.

In the battle to define the tale of Chen Guangcheng, China is not the only country that wants to make sure its version is the one people remember.

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