Rural Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, who is blind, once asked me whether U.S. films accurately portrayed American life—and specifically whether police brutality was as common as it seemed. He could never have dreamed that, a decade later, Academy Award winner Christian Bale would be roughed up by Chinese security guards as the American actor attempted to visit Chen—and that Bale would be in China on a publicity tour for a movie, The Flowers of War, that the Beijing regime is heavily promoting in hopes it’ll earn China its first Oscar.
The incident, which took place in Chen’s hardscrabble village of Dongshigu in Shandong province, heaped fresh controversy upon Bale’s visit. Even before he was punched and chased by menacing Chinese guards manning a cordon around Chen’s home, The Flowers of War had been criticized for demonizing Japanese soldiers in its depiction of wartime atrocities committed by Japanese troops who occupied Nanjing in 1937.
Often called “the rape of Nanking,” this traumatic wartime incident evokes visceral nationalist sentiments among many Chinese. The film, directed by Zhang Yimou, opened this week in China; in a press event after the Sunday premiere Bale called it a “historical piece” and brushed off as “a bit of a knee-jerk reaction” accusations that the movie is overly propagandistic. (In the film, Bale plays an American posing as a priest who tries to protect Chinese women from Japanese invaders. It premieres Dec. 23 in the U.S. and Europe.)
Now Bale’s manhandling near Chen’s home—filmed by a CNN camera crew that accompanied him—threatens to sabotage what China’s culture czars had hoped to be a soft-power coup for Beijing. On the CNN tape, Bale is shown being punched and pushed by Chinese men in bulky green padded coats. Even after Bale withdrew and his vehicle was driving away from the scene, it was pursued for more than half an hour by a gray van. Bale told CNN that all he really wanted to do was “to meet the man, shake his hand, and say what an inspiration he is.”
Bale is just the latest, and the most famous, of many admirers, rights advocates, journalists, and diplomats who’ve been roughed up or beaten (often worse than Bale was) and turned away from Chen’s home by government-supported guards. Chen, along with his wife and child, has been illegally confined to his residence since September 2010, when he was released after serving a four-and-a-half-year prison term.
A rural-born activist who began teaching himself Chinese laws by listening to tape recordings, Chen organized other “peasant lawyers” and rural residents to try to shut down polluting factories in their neighborhoods; when all other efforts failed, he proactively reached out to Western media and diplomats. Such initiatives made authorities skittish. When Newsweek interviewed him for a 2002 cover story on “barefoot lawyers,” Chen revealed that he was interrogated for the first time after receiving a letter from the British Embassy.
But it was his subsequent efforts to publicize the plight of thousands of Shandong women who’d been submitted to forced sterilizations and abortions (sometimes in the third trimester) that enraged authorities and made him a target of persecution. In his 2006 trial, which Western lawyers and his legal defenders say was heavily flawed, Chen was sentenced on charges of destroying property and blocking traffic—activities in which he purportedly took part while under house arrest. Now, without even making a cameo appearance, he has become the unseen star in the dramatic film of Bale’s manhandling by stereotypical Chinese thugs—footage that may tarnish China’s image nearly as much as The Flowers of War was intended to burnish it.