Chen Guangcheng (Illustration: MC)
A series of disparate events has exposed internal dissensions and fractures in China in recent months which could force the political leadership of the country to introduce significant reform.
The dramatic escape of the blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng and his reported custody with the US embassy in Beijing caps off other seemingly unconnected events that have the potential to force the issue of reform.
Chen’s escape, which is now seriously weighing down US-China bilateral relations as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton leaves for Beijing today, comes on the heels of the murder of a British businessman, Neil Haywood over a business dispute. That the wife of Bo Xilai, a once rapidly rising star of China’s tightly controlled political ascension, has been implicated in Haywood’s murder, is causing great embarrassment. There are also reports of China’s President Hu Jintao having been wiretapped by Bo and those close to him.The unraveling of Bo’s career only adds to the drama. Then there was the case of a police chief seeking asylum in the United States.
The Communist Party could consider these events as separate developments rather than treating them as a symptom of a much deeper malaise but it can also use them to carry out serious reform. It is tempting to see them as not representing a trend compounded only by widespread corruption. One way is to resolve them individually without so much as acknowledging that they are part of a growing pattern. But that would be self-serving and eventually counterproductive. The more mature approach would be to recognize them for what they are and put in place reform of the kind China’s Premier Wen Jiabao is said to favor.
All tightly controlled societies can appear deceptively solid but they invariably have deep cracks that only those living inside know about. Such societies have a way of coming apart by a single act of protest of the kind Chen was engaged in against forced abortions and sterilization. That is because societal pressures have built up for so long that even a minor rupture in the edifice could open the floodgates.
My personal interest in China is more by implication than by conscious choice because of my more specific interest in Tibet. Admittedly, I operate on very thin scholarship but even that tells me that the ferment of the kind in China one reads about these days does speak of subterranean tensions that could upend the decades of tight control.
The Chinese leadership can perhaps justifiably argue that their approach has produced near miraculous economic growth of the kind the world has never seen. Even if one takes the merit of that argument at its face value, it is time to build on that solid foundation and begin to offer ordinary Chinese citizens the kinds of freedom that would ensure that the country’s economic success is sustained and becomes more evenly spread.