Batman vs. China

Actor Christian Bale challenges the communist government’s repression of opposition activists.

Given Hollywood’s history of kowtowing before left-wing dictators, from Fidel Castro to Hugo Chavez, it’s novel for a silver-screen celebrity to make news for confronting a repressive communist regime. But “Batman” star Christian Bale stirred up a worthy row recently when he clashed with Chinese security forces after attempting to meet with Chinese civil-rights activist Chen Guangcheng.

Backed by a CNN camera crew, Bale tried to make his way to Chen’s house in the village of Dongshigu. That proved unacceptable to the government security guards who keep Chen under house arrest. After blocking Bale’s path and assaulting his crew, the guards chased them from the village. Rapid economic growth has brought China positive press in recent years, but Bale’s experience is a reminder that, despite its new capitalist face, China remains a quintessentially communist county in its rigid intolerance of dissent.

Chen Guangcheng’s story is a prime example. His crime in the eyes of Chinese authorities is exposing the government’s often-brutal strategies for population control in the country’s rural areas under its notorious one-child policy. Chen collected evidence showing that the government has resorted to everything from forced late-term abortions to compulsory sterilization to enforce the policy, giving the lie to the frequent denials of Chinese leaders  that such a policy exists.

For bringing the state’s cruelties to light Chen, a self-taught lawyer who has been blind since infancy, has been the victim of an unrelenting government harassment campaign. In 2006, he was “disappeared” for three months, resurfacing from an unidentified detention center just in time to face a trial on trumped up charges of “damaging property and organizing a mob to disrupt traffic.” After just two hours, he was sentenced to four years in jail. When he challenged the verdict at a subsequent retrial, key witnesses for his defense disappeared, one by one. The court upheld the verdict anyway.
Officially, Chen is now under so-called “soft-detention.” But that’s an absurd description of someone who is unable to leave his house, even to visit a hospital for treatment, and who is beaten and abused by government security. And, as Bale discovered, no one is permitted to meet with him.

The irony is that Bale was in China to make a film that, according to early reviews, is effectively pro-China propaganda. "The Flowers of War,” in which Bale stars, tells the story of the 1937 massacre of the Chinese city of Nanjing (formerly Nanking) by Japanese troops. In the horrific six-week siege, Japanese soldiers systematically raped, tortured and killed Chinese civilians. The final death toll was estimated to be between 250,000 and 300,000. The atrocity has long soured Sino-Japanese relations, but since the 1980s the Chinese government has sought to use it for political advantage, as a way to promote nationalist and patriotic sentiment. Whatever its merits as a film, "The Flowers of War” seems intended to compliment that propaganda effort. Partially funded by the Chinese government, the film takes a one-dimensional view of the Japanese, portraying them as “monochrome monsters,” as the Wall Street Journal described it.

Bale’s confrontation thus offers enlightening instruction on what authoritarian governments like China will and will not tolerate. As long as Bale was there to do a film the government finds ideologically congenial, he was welcome. But as soon as he turned his attention to a critic of the government in Chen Guangcheng, Chinese security turned violently against him. Indeed, the Chinese government confirmed as much, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman complaining that Bale "was not invited to fabricate news or shoot films in a certain village."

Chen of course is just one of many dissidents that the Chinese government has sought to silence. For these brave activists, 2011 has been a particularly difficult year. According to the human rights watchdog Freedom House, China over the past year stepped up its arbitrary detention and harassment of activists and human rights lawyers. In part this was the government’s reaction to the Nobel Committee’s decision to honor the jailed Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiabo with a Nobel Prize. In response, the government launched a severe crackdown on Liu’s family, including his wife, as well as his supporters, and associates. For those targeted, there is little legal recourse. Sentenced without a fair trial, they are routinely tortured and abused in prison.

To his credit, Christian Bale has drawn attention not only to the plight of an embattled activist but also to a picture of China too often forgotten by the Western media tribunes who sings its economic praises. For all the progress the country has made in recent years, its human rights-record remains, as Bale rightly observed, “disgusting.” Actors and political activism are seldom an encouraging combination. Occasionally, though, even Hollywood gets it right.

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