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In the Wake of Chen Guangcheng's Escape

Chen Guangcheng with U.S. Ambassador

By Elizabeth Pond

In Chen Guangcheng's grim fairytale, no one is living happily ever after. Yet, some things have changed fundamentally in China.

As of this writing, it seems possible that the blind "barefoot lawyer" and human-rights activist will be allowed to leave China with his family to study in the United States. This solution would whisk Chen away from the vindictive wrath of the security forces who tied his wife to a chair and beat her for two days after Chen's mission-impossible escape from de facto house arrest. It would also be face-saving for the Chinese, as their bete-noir would not seek asylum, but would simply leave "like any other citizen," as officials phrased it, to study abroad.

If this optimal solution in fact transpires, America can thank its lucky stars for the sequence in which Chen sought  refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing only after Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun had already sought refuge in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. And so too can China.

If Wang had not first fallen out with Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai and told Americans a lurid tale about the coverup of the murder of a British businessman, Bo would still be awaiting promotion to the inner sanctum of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in next fall's change of generations. Brass-knuckle Bo would still be a powerhouse, and so would his pal Zhou Yongkang, head of all of China's security forces. 

Both would have been furious and humiliated by the solo escape of a blind man over the high wall surrounding his farmhouse and through cordon after cordon of armed police and thugs. They would have exacted revenge. They would have used Chen's derring-do as an example of the dangers of softening CCP rule and would have delegitimized would-be reformers within the party as pandering to the U.S.

Since the Chongqing police chief's escape preceded Chen's escape by two months, however, a very different political dynamic seems to be playing out. Bo was delegitimized and stripped of his party posts. Zhou was neutralized until the change of generations next October, when he will in any case retire from politics. This shift in political balance in the top collective leadership gave the party's semi-liberalizers a bit more room to maneuver. Then, when Chen made a fool of the country's dreaded security apparatus, they had enough leeway to arrange a three-way deal between China, the U.S., and Chen.

So what does the fortuitous sequence of Wang and Chen's escapes change?

First, the iron rule of the security forces has been broken by Chen's feather. Now that many Chinese are smirking at the secret police instead of cringing, their old fears are gone. In a China that has swiftly raised half a billion peasants out of absolute poverty, catapulted itself to become the world's second-largest economy, and spawned a growing middle class, it will be impossible for the security thugs to restore paralyzing fear. Recall what happened when Protestants with candles marched around the Leipzig inner city for one hour under the eyes of the Stasi on October 9, 1989. The East German fear of the secret police vanished overnight, the Berlin Wall fell a month later, the old Communist Germany merged into democratic unified Germany a year later, and the Soviet Union imploded a year after that.

Not that China and its Communist Party are going to implode any time soon. But because of the resonance of Chen's gripping saga around the world—and this is the second novelty—Chen's voice will still be heard from whatever law school he chooses, rather than being lost in the American cacophony.

Third, there is vastly more freedom of the press in China now than there was two months ago. That's not because censorship has softened or because the state-run Xinhua news agency is now emulating the bolder Hong Kong media. But, in an act of noteworthy adaptation, senior party officials are now following a path that only dissidents took before. Even as censors have again clamped down on both traditional and social media, proto-democratic officials have begun leaking reports to Western media that are damaging to their rivals in this year's political infighting. Western journalists have become the watchdogs that Chinese journalists cannot yet be. This can only awaken the dreams of a core of Chinese reporters of turnning surrogate press freedom into greater domestic press freedom.

These innovations, along with the sidelining of Bo Xilai and neo-Maoists in top party echelons, opened up even more political space for party proto-liberalizers to maneuver. Outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao—whom Chinese critics deride as an "Oscar-winning actor" who regularly talks up the need for political reform without any obvious effect—was nowhere in evidence as the Chinese-U.S.-Chen deal was stitched up, unraveled, and perhaps stitched up again. He is unlikely to exercise any greater power in his remaining half year in office. Yet there is an opportunity for some upcoming leader to make his mark one day by championing genuine rule of law, suggests New York University law professor Jerome Cohen.

Western hopes for such enlightenment seem to focus largely on president-in-waiting Xi Jinping—and, in the succeeding generation after him, Guangdong party boss Wang Yang. The problem with such hopes, Cohen points out, is that in closed Communist systems no candidate for top office tips his hand before actually assuming that office. No one knows what Xi thinks in his heart of hearts. So far he seems bland. Yet Cohen noted in a Council on Foreign Relations conference call with journalists this week that no outsider or even party insider foresaw that Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin's henchman, would launch destalinization in 1956 or that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev would reform the Soviet Union to its ultimate death.

For his part, there is no indication that Guangdong party chief  Wang Yang—who is widely tipped to get a seat in the nine-man Politburo Standing Committee in October—is by temperament a democratizer. Nonetheless, his recent examples in siding pragmatically with peasant migrant workers who went on strike for higher wages in his province and with the Wukan village peasants who protested illegal seizure of their land by local officials last December do offer a more participatory model of governance. If the U.S.-Chinese deal over Chen holds, such opening up could eventually gain traction in Politburo attempts to modernize China.

Chen has posed a direct challenge to the schizophrenia of the top party leadership, which has repeatedly passed significant human-rights and land-tenure legislation without ever enforcing these laws. In this context, Chen's initial appeal to Premier Wen to curb the widespread abuse of citizens' rights by the decentralized local party bosses who kept him under house arrest in Shandong province was far more than just a face-saving ruse to solve the impasse over Chen's escape to the U.S. embassy. It pinpointed a fundamental contradiction in the central authorities' search for the stability (if not yet accountability) of legal predictability while at the same time promoting local officials who ignore such legislation to produce the frantic commercial development the center rewards politically.

And if next fall's new leadership or its successor does stun the world and seek to replicate Deng Xiaoping's fundamental economic reforms in the political sphere, it would be the best way to secure and perpetuate the economic miracle it is rightly proud of. Maybe then, China’s fairy tale economic rise would at least live more happily ever after.

*****

*****

Elizabeth Pond writes about German, Serbian, and Chinese transitions.

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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