Most Chinese Unaware Of Chen Guangcheng Story

Two stories out of China — the escape of a blind dissident from house arrest and the corruption scandal involving a top politician and his family — have attracted international attention. But inside China, the picture is different. The government has successfully suppressed the story about the dissident, Chen Guangcheng, such that most Chinese have never even heard of him. The Communist Party has waged a smear campaign against the fallen official, Bo Xilai, whom citizens see as a loser in a power struggle, a corrupt politician or both.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, the U.S. and China will be holding talks this week in Beijing. But political controversy is threatening to overshadow all of that. Last week a blind lawyer and human rights activist escaped China's vaunted security apparatus and apparently has sought refuge with American diplomats in Beijing. That follows a major scandal that recently toppled a senior Communist Party official. All of which promises to make for a tense welcome for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrives tomorrow morning in the Chinese capital.

But while these scandals have made international headlines, not so inside China, as NPR's Frank Langfitt learned, speaking today to people in Shanghai.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: In much of the world, the story of Chen Guangcheng, the blind human rights lawyer, is big news.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCASTS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Free, and with a harrowing tale to tell.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: So how did a blind man escape all these watchers?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Chen's case is threatening to be the biggest human rights issue between the two countries since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

LANGFITT: Here in China, it's different story.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN BLOWING)

LANGFITT: This morning, scores of workers poured onto the Shanghai ferry for a day of sight-seeing. May 1st is Labor Day, a national holiday. I asked a group of workers if they'd heard of Cheng Guangcheng.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: More than a dozen people stared back blankly, shaking their heads. One of them, Wang Wei, is a 37-year-old construction worker from Central China.

WANG WEI: (Through translator) I haven't seen anything about him. I don't have time. I don't get on the Internet and I don't read newspapers.

LANGFITT: No great surprise. Wang works from 6:00 a.m. until 4:30 in the afternoon and has no access to the Web.

Across the river on the Bund, Shanghai's colonial waterfront, there were more white-collar professionals. Still, no luck.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: I don't know. Who? No idea, they said. Why do so many people here not know about a story making headlines around the world? For one, China's government has blacked out news of Chen in almost all state media. Wang Tianding teaches journalism at Xian Foreign Language Studies University.

WANG TIANDING: (Through translator) I think many people from Chinese media are interested in Chen's case, but they don't have the opportunity and possibility to cover the story.

LANGFITT: News about Chen is widely available on Sina weibo, a Chinese twitter-like micro-blog with more than 300 million users. But China has 1.3 billion people and most of them aren't tweeting. Professor Wang says many ordinary people are consumed with trying to get ahead in a crowded, competitive society.

TIANDING: (Through translator) In today's China, too many people have various kinds of pressure in their lives. They live in a society of consumerism.

LANGFITT: While no one I talked to this morning had heard of Chen, some had heard of Bo Xilai. He's the high-ranking official in custody related to a corruption investigation and the murder accusations against his wife. The party has used the state media to attack Bo in recent weeks. Chen Hao is an interior designer from neighboring Jiangsu Province. He sees the case as more about political in-fighting than wrong-doing.

CHEN HAO: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: There are factions within the party, he says. It's power struggle. We ordinary people don't know much about it.

Zhou Yongde, a Shanghai factory worker, said he believed the accusations against Bo and his wife. Echoing the thoughts of many here, he said the government is riddled with corruption and unlikely to change.

ZHOU YONGDE: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: I don't trust 70 percent of officials above the district level, he says. They take and offer bribes, although we don't have evidence against them. Reform? There is no way that reform could happen.

Even when people know about a sensitive political issue like the fall of Bo Xilai, it's not always easy to talk about. Especially in a highly public place like Shanghai's Bund. While I was interviewing there, a government security guard came over and told me to stop, citing a local regulation. When I failed to leave immediately, he called in his boss to apply more pressure.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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