It’s All Relativity: Murky Connections and Guilt by Association

Just when you thought the Chen Guangcheng situation was coming to a head, things got weird. ‘Black-buddy-comedy’ style weird. In fact, I think they should make a movie about it. The ramifications for the producers go much further than pissing off a few activists, but I’ll get to that later.

To quickly recap – Chen Guangcheng is a blind activist who campaigned against forced abortions in villages around the city of Linyi, Shandong province. The self-taught lawyer was jailed for four years and upon his release, despite having served his time (technically on unrelated charges), he was put under house arrest, as was his wife. Even his six-year-old daughter was prevented from attending school.

For a time, his plight was only recognized by foreign media, but increasingly, locals have been paying attention via Weibo (Chinese twitter). Dozens of activists and ordinary Chinese people have been fronting up to Chen’s home, where they have been met by thugs hired from neighboring villages. This online campaign gives you an idea of how many people are actually getting involved.

People from all over the country are photographing themselves wearing blindfolds or sunglasses in a show of solidarity.

There’s been some signs of success. Chen’s daughter has been allowed to attend school, at least.

So that’s the background. But here’s where things get weird. Relativity Media, the film production company responsible for Bruno, American Gangster and 300, have announced that they’re filming their latest buddy comedy film in Linyi.

I suspect that even with the firestorm of controversy they have already ignited, they aren’t aware that of all of the cities in China they could have chosen, this was the worst. It would probably be easier to get away with filming in the Potala Palace while local police hose down a flaming monk, than to announce a partnership with the Linyi local government.

To make matters far more complicated, it’s not at all certain how close the relationship is between the Central government and the local government of Linyi.

Now that the campaign to free Chen Guangcheng is gaining traction, the Central Government is in damage control and most of the terms relating to Chen Guangcheng have been blocked. What’s interesting is that for quite some time, the name itself was not blocked, in fact, it was blocked for a time and then unblocked, then blocked again.

It’s pretty common knowledge that there are various factions within the central government and it’s not at all hard to envision that there are some officials who are less than thrilled by all the attention the Linyi local government has been getting. It’s pretty common for local government in China to flout the Chinese constitution, indeed, the constitution isn’t even recognized as a basis for claims in Chinese courts, though it does look a little embarrassing, so the government prefers to change the constitution to fit bad behavior, rather than institute measures aimed at increasing transparency and accountability. The Linyi local government however, is taking things much further – hiring 300 guards to engage in activities that are technically illegal, while courting international attention, is definitely upping the ante. I’ve no doubt that many in the Central Government are far from amused – especially given that quite possibly the top fear of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is coordinated protest, as opposed to localized disturbances. The prize chumps in Linyi are accomplishing exactly that.

So what made Relativity Media dive in? Having seen the Local-government-corporate courting process first-hand, I can envision exactly how it went down. Chinese officials and American businesspeople, cordial dinners, handshakes, smiles, avowals of closer ties and a very generous offer to invest in the Linyi economy. I’m sure it didn’t even occur to the Linyi officials that in making this agreement, they would increase the publicity for Chen Guangcheng, just as I’m certain those officials view him as a pest and are baffled and frustrated as to why the Western media and all these Chinese activists keep poking their noses into it. After all, what’s in it for them?

I’m sure Relativity Media was utterly ignorant as to the Chen Guangcheng situation, and there’s a chance that they’re still silly enough to think that this is just a symptom of a general anti-Chinese attitude, not realizing that this was the one city they should not have chosen, and any other Chinese city wouldn’t have had this effect. The real danger for them, is to assume that making an arrangement with any Chinese city would have resulted in this, rather than realizing that from a moral standpoint, in getting into bed with the party secretary of Linyi, they’ve made the worst possible choice of Chinese partner.

Charlie Custer over at Chinageeks is absolutely incensed. He’s also put together a list of contact details at Relativity Media so you can vent your fury as well.

He states:

Because maybe it’s just my sense of humor, but holding an innocent blind man and his family in their house, beating and robbing well-intentioned net users trying to visit him, and then lying about it to the world does not sound like a great premise for a hilarious buddy comedy.

I’ve got to disagree with Custer here. I think that if you choose the not-too-bright-and-somewhat-amoral film company which is taking payments from the aforementioned villains,  and make them the stars of your film, you’ve got the makings of a brilliant black comedy.

Also, Seeing Red in China has a great roundup of the news on Weibo which is well worth reading to get further insight into how this is playing out at the level of ordinary Chinese citizens.

UPDATE:

I’d been wondering when it would hit the mainstream news outlets, but just a few minutes ago this Wall Street Journal piece popped up on my twitter feed. Things are gonna get ugly for Relativity Media.

UPDATE:

Relativity media has responded. They say:

“From its founding, Relativity Media has been a consistent and outspoken supporter of human rights and we would never knowingly do anything to undermine this commitment. We stand by that commitment and we are proud of our growing business relationships in China, through our partnership with Sky Land, its strategic alliance with Huaxia Film Distribution Company. As a company, we believe deeply that expanding trade and business ties with our counterparts in China and elsewhere can result in positive outcomes.”

A few points I’d make here – this isn’t a relationship with ‘China’ per se, as I’ve pointed out in the above post. It’s a relationship with Linyi. The campaigns above, combined with the divided response from government, have demonstrated that support for Linyi is not universal.

Linyi in particular, is the city which currently has the worst reputation for violating human rights. Given that no positive outcomes are outlined in terms of human rights, I can only assume this is a hastily put together, poorly thought out response and the only ‘positive outcomes’ relate to profit.

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One Response to It’s All Relativity: Murky Connections and Guilt by Association

  1. Yaxue Cao says:

    Thanks for the link. There were more Weibo translations about Chen Guangcheng:

    http://seeingredinchina.com/2011/10/16/heard-on-weibo/
    http://seeingredinchina.com/2011/10/22/heard-on-weibo-2/

    And there will be more to come.

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