Since local party boss and rising star Bo Xilai's stunning ouster from the Chinese Communist Party in April for "suspected serious violations of discipline," some of the world's best China watchers have been given room in the mainstream press to compare Bo to other top Chinese officials. We've learned much about the "princelings" -- leading cadres whose status in the political pecking order is a function of their parents' allegiance to Mao -- and the collateral damage that could be done to reputations by family members.
But in the long run, the more telling comparison about the nature of power in China today may be between Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist who last week escaped house arrest in Shandong and made his way to Beijing, where he is reportedly seeking refuge in the U.S. Embassy. It isn't that Bo and Chen have similar agendas or found themselves in similar circumstances. It's that these two cases lay bare the extraordinary unpredictability inherent in authoritarian rule and the lengths to which people will go when they are utterly desperate.
Chen, blind since birth, began his journey through China's sometimes Kafka-esque politico-legal system in 2005. After unsuccessfully attempting to file a class-action lawsuit about abuses of the family-planning regime in Linyi City, he and his family members were subject to collective punishment and confined to their home for six months. In March 2006, authorities forcibly removed Chen from his home, telling the family nothing about his whereabouts or legal status for another three months. In June of that year, officials finally acknowledged Chen's detention, but threatened his lawyers and his family and initiated formal legal proceedings on ludicrous charges of damaging property and disrupting traffic. In August 2006, after legal proceedings that could be most charitably described as a kangaroo court, Chen was sentenced to four years and three months. But after he served his time and was released in September 2010, he and his family were again confined -- with no legal basis -- to their home.
Over the course of 2011, Chen, with the help of activists, released a video documenting the abuses to which he and his family were being subject by the dozens of guards who watched them around the clock. At the same time, growing numbers of concerned individuals and activists, as well as some courageous foreign journalists and foreign diplomats, attempted to visit Chen and his family; all were turned back by local thugs with varying degrees of violence. The alarming news kept coming: Chen's health was declining. His young daughter was prevented from attending school; after diplomatic intervention, local authorities "compromised" and allowed her to go -- accompanied by guards. Arguably most disturbing, Chen's young son, who was living elsewhere with other relatives, reportedly cut himself in order to be hospitalized, believing that his mother would finally be allowed to see him. She wasn't.
And so this year, the plan developed for Chen to break out of his and his family's surreal confinement. Last weekend, he slipped past his guards and made his way to Beijing, where he released a video calling on Chinese premier Wen Jiabao to investigate his situation, and pointing out what unnerves Chinese leaders more than just about anything else: that there is growing popular interest in his fate. Chen now appears to have sought sanctuary in the U.S. Embassy -- just days before the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue meetings in Beijing -- and retributions are already being directed at those who helped him "escape."
Central government officials, when pressed about Chen's confinement, occasionally offered up variations on an extraordinary lie: He was free, having completed his sentence. He didn't want visitors, or was too poor to travel. At no point did they intervene or discipline those who held Chen. They were too busy with more important matters, such as the anticipated leadership change in late 2012.
Bo Xilai's star rose in part on the putative success of his similarly twisted interpretations of the law. During his tenure as mayor of Chongqing -- a city-state of 30 million people -- Bo cracked down relentlessly on some organized crime to generate local support. He tried to burnish his national political credentials with economic policies designed to reduce socioeconomic disparities and a neo-Maoist campaign that featured, among other things, schoolchildren singing Cultural Revolution-era "red" songs. Like many others jockeying for positions on the Politburo's Standing Committee -- the body, often consisting of nine members, that effectively runs the country -- he too was a "princeling." And along the way he too allowed the silencing of people like Chen. Bo's corruption drew the attention of veteran journalist Jiang Weiping and lawyer Li Zhuang; the former was sentenced in 2001 to eight years in jail for violating state secrets laws, while the latter was framed, tortured, and sentenced to 18 months in prison for defending a suspected crime syndicate boss.
But when the end came for Bo -- in the form of removal from his official position following the news that his wife, Gu Kailai, may have been complicit in the murder of a foreign businessman -- the circumstances were no more bound by law and due process than that which Chen and his family have endured for years.
Upon his ouster from the party on April 10, the state news agency Xinhua announced that Bo would be investigated for "serious discipline violations." This language suggests that Bo will be subject to the party's own internal discipline system, but it remains unclear whether he will also face criminal charges. He has disappeared from view, and it is equally unclear whether his family has information regarding his whereabouts or whether he has access to a lawyer. While it's hard to generate sympathy for someone who built his career on nakedly disregarding the law, the fact remains that he too is entitled to due process.
There are a few lessons one can draw from these episodes.
One is that politics in China is extraordinarily opaque. Last month's rising political star has now vanished into the party's maw, while the fate of the long-suffering legal activist has the potential to disrupt a major diplomatic summit between the United States and China. The more important lesson may be that politics in China remain highly unpredictable. While to some it may be reassuring to see Chen relatively free and Bo detained, neither story will play out according to agreed-upon rules or procedures, or without abuses, often directed at third parties. Until such time as laws function predictably and free of political whims, one is left with the uneasy sense that few are safe from arbitrary treatment in China.
Other governments, particularly the United States, are scrambling to make sense of and respond to these riptides in China's domestic and international politics. Some will argue that for the United States to intervene in any aspect of Chen's or Bo's cases will jeopardize the bilateral relationship.
But this framing misses a few key points: Segments of Chinese society have had enough of officialdom's abusive, predatory behavior, and they see the prospect for change in Bo's fall and in Chen's persistent activism. At the end of the day, the fate of these men may not rest in U.S. hands. But there is real merit in foreign governments demonstrating unequivocally that their concern for relations with the government are matched by their concern for growing demands inside China for justice and the rule of law.
Sophie Richardson is China Director at Human Rights Watch.