The drama of Chen Guangcheng, the blind self-taught lawyer who made a daring escape from his captors in his home village in Shandong to the American Embassy in Beijing this month, has almost certainly earned its place in Chinese history. Future generations will likely compare Chen to the lone student who stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. It’s doubtful whether a more inspiring film script could have been written that would do justice to the courage and defiance embodied by Chen’s story.
The apparent agreement between Beijing and Washington to allow Chen to go to the United States as a visiting scholar in the very near future may have put an end to this heart-wrenching episode for now, but the fallout from this event, both for Chinese diplomacy and the ruling Communist Party’s ability to maintain control in an increasingly volatile political environment, will be significant and lasting.
On the diplomatic front, the relative flexibility demonstrated by Beijing in handling this crisis has definitely prevented an even more damaging outcome. The all-important U.S.-China relationship was spared another body blow.
Yet, Beijing should find no cause for cheer. The damage done to the Chinese government’s image abroad is incalculable. For almost a week, the world was riveted by the unfolding drama of Chen’s escape. People all over the world cared about Chen’s wellbeing because he was a powerful symbol for courage and social justice. This couldn’t be good news for Chinese leaders, now seen as complicit in Chen’s mistreatment by thugs hired by local government officials. China may have invested tens of billions of dollars, including extravaganzas like the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai Expo, to boost its international standing. All it takes to undo such “soft power” offensives is one lonely blind man who dared to show to the rest of the world the cruelty and repressiveness of the current Chinese political system.
For the party, the domestic political fallout is perhaps even more worrying. Chen’s escape revealed the incompetence of its repressive apparatus. If more than a hundred thugs couldn’t guard a blind man, one wonders whether this costly apparatus could do much else. Another disquieting development for the Chinese government during this episode was the failure of its censorship system in blocking out the news of Chen’s escape. Of course, the censors tried hard, but China’s Twitter equivalent, the micro blogs, made their job impossible, as during the Bo Xilai scandal. There isn’t enough evidence to suggest whether such demonstration of incompetence has hurt the hardliners inside the party. While it’s conceivable that they could use these two incidents to urge tougher repressive measures in the future, it’s hard to imagine that their political standing has increased as a result of the Chen story.
If anything, the Chen drama suggests that fear of repression is dissipating within China. Chen escaped with the help of a network of friends and human rights activists, who risked their lives and liberty to spirit him away from danger and into the U.S. Embassy. More remarkably, after the Chen story broke, many of the same activists fearlessly served as the conduit between Chen and the outside world, even though several of them were detained and beaten up by the police. For the Chinese Communist Party, this is perhaps the most worrisome development – long-repressed dissidents are less afraid to challenge the regime directly. To the extent that authoritarian regimes maintain power largely through fear, the loss of fear on the part of the opposition initially and the ordinary people afterwards is almost certain to portend a profound crisis.
Obviously, the Chen story has to be understood in the context of the Bo Xilai affair. Though completely unrelated, the two incidents have reinforced the perception that the current Chinese political system is entering a period of elevated political risks. In the Bo case, power struggle within the ruling elites has seriously undermined the party’s unity, a critical requisite for survival. In the Chen case, the fearless act of one man will likely inspire many others to stand up for their rights.
Coming on the eve of the party’s 18th Congress, when a new leadership team will be installed, these two incidents have fundamentally altered our perception of the resilience of the current regime. Not too long ago, some leading sinologists proposed a theory of “authoritarian resilience” to explain why and how the post-Tiananmen regime had been so successful in maintaining power. Among other things, they argued that in the post-Tiananmen era, the party had managed to institutionalize its succession process, strengthened meritocracy, and learned to respond to public opinion.
As a result of the Bo and Chen incidents, we now know that the party’s rule isn’t resilient, but fragile. Its succession process remains unpredictable. Meritocracy is basically a myth (otherwise, how do you explain Bo’s near-successful promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee?). That Chen has been so mistreated so illegally for so long, despite public protest in the cyberspace, indicates that the party can be tone-deaf where its intervention is desperately needed to avert a human tragedy and a political crisis.
The emerging perception of a ruling party facing an impending crisis is, in all likelihood, the most significant political fallout from the Chen Guangcheng story. Of course, it’s purely psychological. But when we put all the pieces of the puzzle together – the deep structural economic difficulties facing China, a rising sense of uncertainty and anxiety among the elites, an intellectual reawakening, and an emboldened dissident community – it may not be a stretch to say that China has entered a political phase that is fundamentally different from the past two post-Tiananmen decades.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College