BEIJING (Reuters) - The rising Chinese official who critics say engineered the jailing of the blind legal rights activist Chen Guangcheng, has come a long way from Connecticut, where he studied public policy and claims to have worked as an aide to the mayor of New Haven.
If Chen embodies the rebellious energies that worry China’s ruling Communist Party, the official, Li Qun, with his U.S.-honed technocratic learning and homegrown toughness, appears to embody the qualities that the party hopes will keep it in power.
Li first won national attention in China as the author of a book describing his times in New Haven, “I was an Assistant to an American Mayor.”
But an examination of Li’s time in New Haven and Linyi, an area in eastern China’s Shandong province where his path crossed with Chen’s, indicates he embellished details of his time in New Haven.
“The Mayor has no recollection of Li Qun,” Elizabeth Benton, director of communications from the City of New Haven, said in emailed comments that denied other details of Li’s account.
Most recently, human rights activists have accused Li of pursuing a vendetta against Chen Guangcheng, who has been under house arrest in Linyi for 15 months, becoming the focus of domestic and international campaigns to secure his freedom.
Chen’s fate has become a test of wills, pitting the ruling Communist Party’s crackdown on dissent against rights activists.
“Li Qun has a unique characteristic — anything that his superiors from the Communist Party say, he will execute it,” said Sun Wenguang, a retired professor from Shandong University who said he worked alongside him.
Li — now the Communist Party boss in Qingdao, a major port city in Shandong — did not respond to requests for comment.
Supporters of Chen, a charismatic, self-schooled advocate, say his fate shows the risks of angering powerful officials.
Chen was jailed for four years on what his supporters said was a trumped-up charge of “damaging property and obstructing traffic.” Formally released from prison in September 2010, he remains effectively jailed in his village home, guarded by plain clothes security who act with the authority of police.
Some of the harshest restrictions have been eased on Chen and his family, but people are still prevented from visiting him, including Hollywood actor Christian Bale.
“Everyone believes that Li Qun, in order to protect his career prospects, had to move the obstacle of Chen Guangcheng away,” Jiang Tianyong, one of China’s most prominent rights lawyers and a close friend of Chen, told Reuters.
Li was also linked at the time to a campaign of forced abortions to enforce family planning policies.
Chen angered officials in Shandong when he exposed the program of forced abortions as part of China’s one-child policy — one of the most sensitive issues for the ruling party.
“Besides carrying out the birth planning policy, at the same time (he) couldn’t allow cases that show the trampling of human rights to be exposed,” Jiang said. “So, Chen Guangcheng was a person that had to be sacrificed.”
In 2005, Chen begged Jiang and other lawyers in Beijing to investigate family-planning abuses in Linyi, a poor region of mostly peasants, 630 km (390 miles) from Beijing.
When Jiang went there, he discovered that men were rounding up parents at night and locking them up if their daughters went into hiding to avoid forced abortions or sterilizations, and charging them 100 yuan for every night they were detained.
Within a year of launching his campaign to expose abuses in the population policy, Chen was arrested, charged and convicted.
Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer, documented the abuses in a report that estimated 7,000 women were forcibly sterilized in Yinan, a county in Linyi, from March to August 2005.
Chen and other villagers told Teng in 2005 that Li “ordered ...the torture activities for the violent birth control campaign,” Teng told Reuters.
Local officials have been punished and rewarded based on their ability to meet annual population control targets.
In November 2010, Li became party chief of Qingdao. He is also a member of the Shandong Standing Committee, the apex of power in the province.
In November, Teng said he received a letter from a villager in Linyi. “Guangcheng’s case has happened more than six years ago, but the brutal enforcement of the birth-control policy still exists,” the villager wrote.
“The town’s family planning personnel have illegally detained the family members of the people who have violated the birth policy, and have secretly locked them up and taken their mobile phones.”
Before Li became the party boss of Linyi, he led a group of Shandong government officials who took classes at the University of New Haven in 2000, according to Karen Grava, the university’s director of media relations.
Li was awarded a Masters of Public Administration degree under a program drawn up by the University of New Haven, Grava said in emailed comments. He also participated in an internship in the office of New Haven’s Mayor, John DeStefano.
After his stint in the mayor’s office, in 2004 Li published a book in Chinese about his experiences. State-owned newspaper China Youth Daily called it “the first perspective by a Chinese official into the operations of the U.S. government.”
In the book, Li recalled the mayor asking him about what to do about two police officers accused of taking more than the three days of leave they were allotted.
“Mayor John DeStefano was quite trusting in me, and asked me my views,” Li wrote. “I said, ‘Our Chairman Mao once said, Unless you have carried out investigations, you have no right to speak’, and so this matter should be further investigated.’ Perhaps this was one task I could help the mayor with.”
Li said DeStefano authorized him to “carry out an investigation, and then give me your opinion on what to do.”
But DeStefano had no recollection of such encounters or indeed of Li himself, said Benton from the city government.
“The Mayor would never have delegated to an unpaid intern the duties handled by the Police Department’s Internal Affairs unit,” Benton said.
Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington D.C. and Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Ron Popeski