Y! Big Story: Blind dissident and political rock star scandals plague China’s leadership transition

Vera H-C Chan
Senior Editor, Special Projects
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An escaped dissident (a blind one at that), running from house arrest and straight into the arms of Hillary Clinton—if he can get to her. A political rock star's downfall. A mysterious poisoning.

Are these cases of power-mad provincials on the loose? The clash of national economic reform and upstart Maoist loyalists? Just nasty but juicy business? For a country the size and scale of China, scandal can assume mega proportions. When those scandals happen within months of a massive leadership transition, that sends out red flares about power struggles within the world's most populous country.

This fall isn't just any transfer of power: Seven out of nine leaders are retiring, making for a momentous generational shift. That has happened only three times in modern China, according to the Brookings Institute. The first ended in the cultural revolution, and the second with the 1989 Tienanmen Square revolt. The third in 2002 proved the charm, with an orderly transition. Now, with Arab Spring being top of mind and Chinese confidence falling, tales of political fugitives and corrupt officials make political peace mighty difficult.

Naturally, as China shapes itself to be the leading global power, how these scandals shake out affects diplomatic relationship and world economies. Let's dig in:

Tale 1: The escape of the blind activist: Chen Guangcheng may not be well-known beyond his region of Dongshigu, but his story has attracted China's activists, civil rights attorneys, Western media, even Christian Bale to his doorstep. Chen, who taught himself civil law, gained popularity defending farmers and the disabled. His campaign against forced abortions and sterilizations led to some authorities being punished, allegedly angering local leaders who have kept him under house arrest.

On April 22, after faking an illness, Chen escaped on a "moonless night," passing nearly 100 guards. Supporters hid him along the way until he reached the U.S. embassy in Beijing five days later.

"He walked for hours from his own home in the middle of the night. He was wounded, wet, covered in mud. He swam across a river," [ChinaAid founder Bob] Fu told ABC News. (April 30, ABC News)

The escape wasn't timed with the visit of U.S. State Department officials, but it worked to publicize Chen's case and cause an awkward riff. (Secretary of State Clinton had chided China over Chen's house arrest in November.) The U.S. embassy negotiated his stay, but Chen found himself "abandoned" and even more security forces taking over his home, and wanted to leave China, preferably on Clinton's plane.

He later met with U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke and told a friend he was "extremely sorry for the pressure brought to the relevant parties including the U.S. embassy,"

Where is Chen now, and what does this mean for China? Chen, in Beijing's Chaoyang Hospital, will likely follow his family to the U.S. on a fellowship to New York University.

Chinese media has posited his case as one of U.S. interference:

The Western media has portrayed Chen as a blind activist hero, and some Chinese have echoed this view. These have given Chen a wrong impression of his importance to the U.S. and his individual influence in China. His self-judgment has been ruined by exaggerated media reports. (May 2, Global Times)

Exaggerated or not, he has injected himself as a political process as a symbol.

This puts the Communist party in a very difficult position. It's already fragile at this point because of the intense infighting at the top...This is something that potentially could split the party even further and lead to even more social unrest and turmoil in China. (May 1, WTOP)

Tale 2: You don't know Bo: To explain why the downfall of Bo Xilai is huge, you have to know both sides of Bo. The 62-year-old has been dubbed China's JFK, a rock star, and one of the world's most influential people. On the flip side, he's an over-entitled "princeling"—the son of one of the Eight Elders who ran China after the cultural revolution—hankering for high office.

Whatever his motivations, as party chief of Chongqing, the world's largest municipality, Bo turned around a gang-infested, politically corrupt system and revived good ol'-fashioned populist Maoism, right as China was experimenting with capitalist models. His actions, at a time when accelerated class divisions are embittering those left behind, made him a hero. For a guy with aims to be China's No. 2, his chances didn't look half-bad.

Corruption, poison, betrayal?: Then came the avalanche. His chief of police Wang Lijun fled Chongqing to Beijing (via the U.S. consulate) with wild tales from the Bo camp. Within days, Mrs. Bo was arrested as a suspect in a British man's death by poison. The victim was allegedly greasing their son's way into highbrow British schools—bad enough that the son was driving fancy cars in Harvard.

Bo himself hasn't been accused of poisoning, but worse accusations than murder may come to light: bribery, torture, wiretapping the president. The worst sin: shamelessly using familial and political advantages to enrich yourself. To a westerner, that's just how society works. In a country that prides itself on meritocracy and fidelity to the state first and family second, flaunting your 1% membership doesn't make you popular—except in books.

Where is Bo now, and what does this mean for China? Bo, who spent his teens in a labor camp after his father was disgraced, is under "'shuanggui,' informal detention enforced by Communist Party disciplinary bodies outside the courts." As for what the scandal means, the Brookings Institute gives a mostly positive view.

It not only reveals major flaws in the Chinese political system, but may also help the Chinese leadership, intellectual communities, and the general public reach a new consensus, thus contributing to bold and genuine political reforms. However, if the leadership fails to seize this great opportunity, the CCP will be in greater jeopardy in the years to come. (April 18, The National Bureau of Asian Research)

On the other side, if corruption accusations prove true against Bo—who was supposed to be the reformer who challenged and irked his peers, then the whole system's in trouble.

[His case] challenges the one-party system that rules the nation—and has made corruption and connections (guanxi in Chinese) integral to that rule. (April 24, The National Interest)

This story has been updated with news of Chen's offer of a New York University fellowship.