- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 8, 2012

BEIJING (AP) — Rights advocate Chen Guangcheng says the Chinese government quietly has promised him it will investigate abuses he and his family suffered at the hands of local authorities, in a rare instance of Beijing bowing to demands of an activist.

Beijing’s apparent willingness to look into the blind legal activist’s complaints is another sign that his gambit late last month — when he fled house arrest in his home town for the U.S. Embassy and set off a diplomatic tussle — has succeeded in getting high officials to address his concerns.

Mr. Chen said an official from a central government bureau that handles citizens’ complaints has visited him in his Beijing hospital four times, including to take a statement last Thursday.

“After he took my statement, he said they would launch an investigation as long as there are facts, and that if there are facts about the illegal actions, then the issue definitely would be openly addressed,” Mr. Chen told the Associated Press in an interview Monday.

Mr. Chen said it remained to be seen how seriously Beijing would probe abuses by township and county officials that date back to 2005, after Mr. Chen angered local authorities by documenting forced late-term abortions and sterilizations in his rural community.

“Will the investigation be thorough? That’s hard to say, so we’ll have to keep monitoring,” Mr. Chen said.

The State Bureau of Letters and Calls, as the complaints office is known, did not respond to attempts to seek comment. A man who answered the phone at the duty office of the bureau refused to provide a contact number for officials who handle media requests.

But even a preliminary investigation shows the extraordinary amount of attention Mr.  Chen’s case is getting. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Chinese are believed to present petitions every year, and only a fraction result in action.

Mr. Chen served four years in prison on what supporters said were fabricated charges and then was kept under house arrest with his wife, daughter and mother. Mr. Chen has described how, besides assaulting him, officials also would beat up his wife and mother, at one point chasing his wife on the road, pulling her from a vehicle and then hitting her. His daughter was also subject to searches and harassment.

The mistreatment often has seemed extreme and personal, exposing the impunity local officials believe they have and Beijing’s unwillingness or inability to do anything about it.

For all its power, the authoritarian government relies on local officials to enforce policies, so Beijing must be careful not to alienate them. However, with Mr. Chen’s case now an international issue, Beijing either is feeling compelled to act or is seizing the opportunity to get rid of local officials it dislikes.

Unless a case becomes “a big issue or crisis for them, even though they may or may not like what the local authorities are doing, they don’t have a lot of reason to try to intervene,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist and faculty director at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing. “They don’t want to be seen as undermining local authorities because the local authorities, in doing something sometimes excessively, are also doing the bidding of the central government in maintaining stability.”

In a sign that the government doesn’t want Mr. Chen’s case to set a precedent or encourage others, Beijing has not publicized its meetings with the activist, and coverage by the domestic media, nearly all of which are state-owned, has been limited to dispatches by the official Xinhua News Agency and editorials criticizing the United States.

Though Mr. Chen, his wife and two children are in the hospital under arrangements that may see them leave for the U.S. soon, others in his family remain at risk. Mr. Chen’s nephew reportedly has been detained after a clash he had with officials following the activist’s escape from house arrest.

Mr. Chen said that in his talks with the visiting official he also conveyed his wish that the guards stationed in his home and village by the local authorities be removed. He also asked the official to help with the paperwork for his and his family’s travel documents, and Mr. Chen said the official promised to handle it.

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