China Power

High Noon for Beijing?

The Chen Guangcheng reflects the Communist Party’s growing inability to control the message. Can it?

The whirlpool of events surrounding Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng had a certain reality TV feel about it in the U.S. this week. It was unclear what might happen next, with cameras, a social media frenzy and unexpected calls to U.S. lawmakers  all making for quite a show. With Chinese officials asking for an apology while agreeing to a deal to guarantee Chen’s safety, only then to apparently break that deal within hours, we’ve been given a glimpse of Chinese intentions. But while reality shows are generally harmless, this real life drama has serious implications for U.S.-China relations.

China only has itself to blame for the way things are unfolding, as it slowly loses control despite its best efforts to keep a tight rein on everything in society, from how many children its citizens can have, to what websites they can visit to what news the public does and doesn’t need to know.

The United States has done nothing it needs to apologize for in this latest incident. The problem for China’s leaders is that this is unlikely to be the last time that it faces such a situation. Bo Xilai lieutenant Wang Lijun’s recent visit to a U.S. consulate suggests that Chinese officials may face a new tactic among campaigners to get the world’s attention.  “Running” to the U.S. embassy or consulate could be a new favored tactic any time Chinese officials clamp down on regional, ethnic or societal tensions. Imagine if campaigners from Tibet or Xinjiang decide to follow this strategy? Or if protestors in Wuhan had decided to march to head to the U.S. consulate?

The Chen drama may have done substantial damage to Chinese leaders’ sense of legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Coming on the heels of the Bo scandal, China’s rulers were already struggling to recreate an illusion of an orderly transfer of power to the fifth generation leadership. With Chen apparently able to call the international media – and even U.S. politicians – at will during the latest drama, China looked to be struggling to keep a handle on events.

At some point, China lost control of a tightly scripted vision of how it wished to be perceived by the international community. China’s human rights record, something no one should ignore, hasn’t been a focus for U.S. diplomats with other geostrategic concerns in play. But with U.S. presidential election politics in full swing, China’s human rights record will be back in the spotlight. And with Chinese leaders’ power based on its ability to control society, the Communist Party now faces dangerous undercurrents.

This is the last thing China wanted now, faced as it is with international concern over Chinese moves in the South China Sea, alarm over its growing military power, and its warm relations with nations like North Korea, Sudan, Zimbabwe and other pariah states. All paint an unflattering picture of Beijing and its ambitions.

The question now is whether the Chen case will have set a dangerous precedent for the Communist Party, and if it has lost the ability to frame its own narrative.