The US embassy in Beijing is a pretty happening place of late. First the police chief of a major city tries to defect and implicates the wife of a top Chinese leader in a murder plot. The police chief, one Wang Lijun, leaves the next day, is spirited away by the authorities – and Bo Xilai, an up-and-coming party leader poised to challenge China’s “reformist” leadership, disappears from sight. Next up: a blind Chinese human rights activist escapes from house arrest, and arrives at the US embassy – which is 300 miles away. Chen Guangcheng, we are told, scaled a wall in the dead of night – “darkness is nothing to him,” said one commenter – and walked for miles, unassisted, until he met a supporter who drove him to Beijing. Reportedly his captors did not even notice he was gone until it was too late. Although details are “murky,” according to a New York Times account, the escape was apparently long-planned, with Chen feigning illness for weeks. One telling detail: he also was able to link up with his supporters by cell phone in spite of a jamming device that authorities used to isolate him from communications with the outside world.
Where would a Chinese dissident held incommunicado in an isolated farmhouse get a de-jamming device?
It may or may not be a coincidence that Hillary Clinton is due in Beijing for talks in a few days, but this much is certain: a blind man doesn’t escape from prison (actually, house arrest) and travel 300 miles without a very sophisticated support system. Western news accounts attribute Chen’s escape to an “underground railroad” that exists outside the purview of Chinese authorities, but there is little evidence of this underground outside this one incident. The Times speculates that a “sympathetic guard” may have assisted Chen in his escape, and given the difficulties in pulling off such a perilous journey I would concur that this was probably an inside job — but I would extrapolate this beyond the existence of a single sympathizer.
China is at a crossroads. The leadership is passing from one generation to the next, and the reformist leadership is eager to ensure the continuity of its program of modernization, increasing economic ties with the West, and the stability of one-party rule. Yet the oligarchy they have established is threatened at several key points, including the vast network of corruption and the growing economic inequality that characterizes Chinese society in the post-Mao era. Bo Xilai posed a direct threat to the system by going after the Chinese mafia and their allies in officialdom: not only that, but he struck fear in the hearts of the leadership by invoking the Maoist spirit, which, in contemporary terms, means he stoked the fires of Chinese nationalism – the one ideological force that has the “reformists” quaking in their boots. In short, Bo had to go, and the events leading up to his disgrace and disappearance have all the hallmarks of a frame-up job, with the Chinese and Western media subsequently playing their parts in portraying him as a villain. This is one time when the Wall Street Journal and People’s Daily are in total agreement.
This New York Times account of the power struggle, although written in the style of a straight news story, is full of adjectival clues as to the identity of the Good Guys and the Bad Guys:
“The Xi and Bo families are mirror images in the Communist pantheon. Mr. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was a revolutionary hero purged by Mao who ended his career as one of Deng Xiaoping’s favored reformers. Mr. Bo’s father, Bo Yibo, was also purged and came back into power, but earned a reputation among party elites as a back-stabber.”
The grandson of the “back-stabber” appears to have inherited his father’s “loud and charismatic” personality, according to the Times:
“Their sons inherited their personalities. Even the third generations are a study in contrast: Xi Jinping’s daughter, Xi Mingze, maintains a low profile as an undergraduate at Harvard, while Bo Xilai’s younger son, Bo Guagua, is known for his grandiose lifestyle as a graduate student there.”
The reality is that Bo Guagua’s “lifestyle” at Harvard is – or was – no more “grandiose” than any of the other princelings (and princesses) who attend that elite school. That the Western media is cooperating with the Communist Party of China in a propaganda campaign against the family of a prominent dissident – and Bo is indeed a dissident, albeit not the sort likely to win Western plaudits – is an astonishing fact, and the implications are interesting. Because what seems to be happening is that China’s “reformist” oligarchs are allying themselves with the West in an effort to stem rising resentment against their rule – and, by the way, enriching themselves in the process.
Neil Heywood, the man Bo’s wife is accused of poisoning (!), was a very shady “fixer” linked to a company with connections to Britain’s intelligence services. That Bo crossed them, in some way, is almost certain: the announcement that Royal Dutch Shell, a company with links to Heywood’s British patrons, has signed an unprecedented joint agreement with the CCP to produce oil from shale came days after Bo’s downfall.
The internal battle inside the Chinese Communist party is being fought with hammer and tongs: the latest is that Bo was wiretapping top Communist officials, and that this was the last straw as far as the leadership was concerned. This, however, has not been publicized in the anti-Bo propaganda campaign inside China, the likely reason being the implication Bo had some inside dirt he was about to unleash. As the Times put it:
“Internal party accounts suggest that the party views the wiretapping as one of Mr. Bo’s most serious crimes. One preliminary indictment in mid-March accused Bo of damaging party unity by collecting evidence on other leaders. Party officials, however, say it would be far too damaging to make the wiretapping public. When Mr. Bo is finally charged, wiretapping is not expected to be mentioned.”
Chen’s case is seen as a “test case” for the reformist leadership, which has explicitly appealed to the “rule of law” as the linchpin of its factional position inside the CCP. As this Washington Post piece notes, Chen has never been charged with an actual crime, and his famous YouTube video protesting his detention was couched in terms of an appeal to the leadership in Beijing, specifically Premier Wen Jiabao, who held a press conference calling for more radical reforms on March 14 – an event swiftly followed by Bo Xilai’s downfall.
Westerners following events in China do so at a great disadvantage, and I’m not just talking about the language gap. China’s political landscape is largely impenetrable to foreigners for the simple reason that we insist on seeing the subject through Western eyes, imposing our own categories on people and events that have little relevance to their actual import and meaning.
For example, I have used the term “reformist” to describe the current leadership throughout this piece, often placing this in scare-quotes to denote my unhappiness with such phraseology: the reality, however, is that “reform” in China does not necessarily mean progress toward a more open and democratic order. It can also mean “progress” toward economic and political oligarchy, the tightening of the screws on China’s largely uneducated and property-less masses. “Reformist,” in this context, does not mean advocacy of multi-party elections, press freedom, or any of the other rights we associate with a free society: it means broadening the decision-making process within the framework of one-party rule. Likewise, in the economic sphere, “reform” does not mean the introduction of a free-market economy – it means increased foreign penetration of the fabled China market by favored Western companies. In tandem with “reformist” party officials, these companies ruthlessly exploit and pollute to their hearts’ content, while enriching their friends in the Communist hierarchy.
In its battle to preserve “stability” at all costs, China’s corrupt “reformist” leadership has found allies among the governments and corporate boards of the West– and the Western media, routinely subservient to both its political and corporate masters, is obliging by presenting us with a distorted view of China’s biggest political shake up since the Cultural Revolution. In order to discover what is really going on over there, it is necessary to reach behind the headlines to grasp the truth.