Christian Bale Attacked by Chinese Guards
Published: December 15, 2011
BEIJING — The actor Christian Bale was assaulted by government-backed guards on Thursday when he tried to visit a blind lawyer who has been illegally confined to his home in eastern Shandong Province.
Mark Ralston/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
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Supporters of Chen Guangcheng, via Associated Press
The lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, has emerged as a cause célèbre among the country’s rights advocates, dozens of whom have been similarly roughed up when they tried to break through the cordon that local officials have placed around Mr. Chen’s village.
The encounter, captured by a CNN camera crew who accompanied him on the eight-hour drive from Beijing to Dongshigu village, promises to become a public relations debacle for China, which has been eagerly promoting Mr. Bale’s latest movie, “The Flowers of War,” which premiered last Sunday at the one of the capital’s most important government buildings.
Directed by Zhang Yimou, the movie was partly financed by loans from a state-owned bank and it is the country’s foreign film submission for the Academy Awards. At $94 million, it is also said to be the most expensive Chinese-made film ever. Officials here have expressed hope that it might earn China its first Oscar.
The footage of Mr. Bale’s attempted visit is dramatic. In it, he is seen pleading with the men who guard Dongshigu’s entry points and then retreating as they push and punch him. “Why can I not visit this free man?” he asks repeatedly. The men, dressed in thick green winter coats respond with shouts of “Go away.” Even after they have retreated into their car, the group, which included a translator, was chased for 40 minutes by men in a gray van.
“What I really wanted to do was to meet the man, shake his hand and say what an inspiration he is,” Mr. Bale said.
In recent months, scores of Chinese activists have had similar experiences, although some have endured far more violence, sometimes at the hands of uniformed police who the victims had called for assistance.
None of the journalists, diplomats or rights lawyers who have made the journey to Dongshigu have succeeded in meeting Mr. Chen, 40, who has been imprisoned in his home, along with his wife and child, since his release from prison in September 2010.
A self-taught lawyer, Mr. Chen crossed the line from celebrated lawyer to persecuted dissident after he took on the case of thousands of local women who had been the victims of an aggressive family planning campaign that included forced sterilizations and abortions. In 2006, he was sentenced to four-and-a-half years during a trial that his legal defenders described as farcical. The charges included destroying property and organizing a crowd to block traffic, crimes allegedly orchestrated while he was under house arrest.
Mr. Bale’s encounter with China’s authoritarian system is sure to complicate efforts to publicize the film, part of a government campaign to bolster the country’s so-called soft power. The film, which premieres on Dec. 23 in the United States and Europe, opens this week in China on 8,000 screens and has been accompanied by a herculean publicity effort.
Speaking to reporters after the film’s premiere on Sunday, Mr. Bale — whose credits include “Batman Begins” and “The Fighter” — defended “The Flowers of War” against accusations that it was overly propagandistic. The film depicts Japanese atrocities during their 1937 occupation of Nanjing, a highly emotional topic that is often used by the Communist Party to stir up nationalistic sentiment among ordinary Chinese.
Mr. Bale plays an American mortician who dons the vestments of a Catholic priest in his effort to save young Chinese women who have taken refuge in a Catholic boarding school during the Japanese invasion. By some estimates, 300,000 people died during the ensuing orgy of murder and rape.
“I think that would be a bit of a knee-jerk reaction,” he said of suggestions made by critics that it excessively demonizes the Japanese. “I don’t think they’re looking closely enough at the movie.”
The government has yet to officially react to news of Mr. Bale’s tussle, although it was largely blocked from the Internet on Friday. CNN featured the video on its homepage but the video could not be opened.
It is not the first time that Hollywood, eager to gain a foothold in China’s fast-growing film industry, has found itself entangled in Chinese domestic politics. Last October, a group of American producers shooting a comedy in the county where Mr. Chen is being held were criticized for their partnership with the local Communist Party officials who have orchestrated his detention.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 16, 2011
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the source of financing for “The Flowers of War.” While some of the money for the film came in the form of loans from some state banks, the film was mostly privately financed. It also misstated the title of one of Christian Bale’s films. It is “Batman Begins,” not “Batman.”
'Batman' star Bale punched, stopped from visiting blind Chinese activist
DONGSHIGU VILLAGE, China (CNN) -- As Christian Bale approached an impromptu checkpoint leading to this tiny village in eastern China, four men blocking the narrow path started marching toward him in menacing unison.
"I am here to see Chen Guangcheng," the "Dark Knight" actor said and I translated, with correspondent Stan Grant and cameraman Brad Olson next to us.
"Go away!" the plainclothes guards barked, pushing us back.
Amid the scuffling and yelling, dozens more guards in olive-green, military-style overcoats -- and two gray minivans -- emerged from the other side of the checkpoint, all coming toward us.
"Why can I not visit this free man?" Bale asked repeatedly, only to receive punches from guards aiming for his small camera as they tried to drag him away from the rest of us.
As we retreated, I recognized the ringleader -- the same burly man who had hurled rocks at the CNN team 10 months earlier to force us out of the same location.
A precarious scene ensued Thursday as one of the gray minivans chased our car at high speed on bumpy country roads for some 40 minutes.
When the dust settled, we counted a broken car, a damaged camera -- and a Hollywood star disappointed at -- but not shocked by -- his failure to see a personal hero.
"What I really wanted to do was to meet the man, shake his hand and say what an inspiration he is," Bale said.
The man, 40-year-old Chen Guangcheng, has been confined to his home along with his wife, mother and daughter, and watched around the clock by dozens of guards since he was released from prison in September 2010. A local court had sentenced him to more than four years in prison for damaging property and disrupting traffic in a protest.
His supporters maintain authorities used trumped-up charges to silence Chen, a blind, self-taught lawyer who rose to fame in the late 1990s thanks to his legal advocacy for what he called victims of abusive practices by China's family-planning officials.
Bale first learned about Chen through news reports, including our coverage in February, when he was in China filming "The Flowers of War," a wartime drama set in 1930s Nanjing in which he plays a mortician trying to save a group of schoolgirls from the clutches invading Japanese soldiers.
The injustice faced by the activist and his family stirred such strong emotions in Bale that, upon hearing his impending return to China to promote the movie, he decided to do something unusual to raise the international awareness of Chen and thereby to turn up the heat on the Chinese government.
"This doesn't come naturally to me, this is not what I actually enjoy -- it isn't about me," he explained during our eight-hour drive from Beijing to the eastern city of Linyi, where Chen's village is located. "But this was just a situation that said I can't look the other way."
Known to be a media-shy celebrity, Bale reached out to CNN and invited us to join him on his journey to visit Chen.
In the car, he lamented the American public's lack of knowledge on Chen's case, despite senior U.S. officials' increasingly vocal support for his freedom. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Gary Locke, the American ambassador to China, have both championed Chen's cause.
Bale appeared a little surprised to learn that Relativity Media, which produced his 2010 Oscar-winning "The Fighter" and recently filmed a comedy in Linyi, was accused by activists of cozying up to the same officials who ordered Chen's detention and torture. The studio has issued a statement denying the allegation.
Although China's state media has largely ignored the story, Chen's plight has spread online and outraged a growing number of Chinese "netizens." Many have tried to visit Chen, and activists say nearly all would-be visitors have been turned back, often violently, by plainclothes police and local thugs.
"I'm not brave doing this," Bale emphasized. "The local people who are standing up to the authorities, who are visiting Chen and his family and getting beaten or detained, I want to support them."
As our car sped toward Beijing in the dark, Bale wondered aloud if he would never be allowed back -- a prospect he is prepared to accept -- even as "The Flowers of War" became China's official entry into next year's Academy Awards.
"Really, what else can I do to help Chen?" he kept asking as the clock struck midnight, with his latest movie -- partially funded by the state -- about to open nationwide in China.