The blind, barefoot lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, imprisoned for exposing the morally repugnant practice of forced abortion and sterilization, just evaded one of the world’s most sophisticated state police. It’s a shrewd move: figuring out how to get a sick blind man from his house arrest to Beijing—a daring cat and mouse game between the Chinese police state and reformers. And it was apparently done not because Chen wants asylum: He and his inner gang of reformers see their chance to press for a more democratic political system. In other words, Chinese reformers believe the system is cracking.
What matters for China is not whether Westerners believe the system is cracking. The question is: how do the Chinese view their own system? Clearly reformers see the system fracturing. Chen escaped just as more news broke of power struggles at the top of the Communist Party, between Bo Xilai, his henchmen, and members of the Standing Committee.
While no one in the United States can possibly know all the particulars of the Bo Xilai case, common sense suggests several conclusions. First, the central leadership had it out for him ever since he begun (with his charisma) to build his own powerbase, he became popular for anti-crime efforts in Chongqing, and he expressed nostalgia for Mao’s supposed support for the poor. They were ready when he made a mistake.
Second, Bo’s case—his family skimmed a substantial amount of money from the state—indicates that China has turned into some sort of mafia state run by powerful families connected to the party and military. There are surely many other politically connected Chinese families who do the same thing, Bo’s case has the potential to expose others’ corruption: his plight has unmasked the way in which the party leaders now operate.
This leads us back to Chen. The leadership is reeling from the revelations of the Bo case, and the great wall of silence protecting the Standing Committee is breaking. Chinese leaders were secure as long as no one revealed how the game works or if they played it together. Now they are divided, and are in a trap. They can keep making payoffs for loyalty, to the security services or to the military, but the public knows how corrupt the system is, and many more people are in a position to describe the payoffs.
Chen’s move was strategically timed. His case to Chinese and Westerners will be, “look what happens when rights are not protected.” Chinese leaders steal, even kill. He can try to use patriotic terms: When Bo’s deputy Wang Lijun sought help, the only institution he could trust was the U.S. consulate. He was unsafe outside the hands of the Americans. This fact is a huge embarrassment for the Chinese leadership. Wang had to go to America, figuratively, to get help. The same is true with Chen. For the Chinese, it is apparent that they are having trouble sorting out their own affairs or running their own country.
These unfolding events have major implications for Sino-American relations during the week of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue summit. The machinery of U.S.-China policy is set on a very linear path – based on a China that will hold together, that is always rising, and that can make important decisions and stick to them. But the Chinese themselves are showing this China to be more of a reassuring fantasy than reality.
Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.