The wheels have started turning for blind barefoot lawyer Chen Guangcheng’s application to leave China to study in the U.S. But not before his case has exposed the fragility of the ruling Communist Party’s control and the incompetence of its repressive apparatus, says a leading analyst.
“It would be too early to say it’s going to go very quickly,” Chen told the Financial Times, adding that government officials confirmed the deal was on. “They just said that the attitude of the central government is very clear, that they will do it for me.”
Chen said he had also discussed with Mr Guo an earlier demand that Beijing stop the local authorities in Shandong, his home province, from continuing the abuse he and his family suffered under extralegal house arrest since he returned home from jail in 2010. The activist pleaded for attention to the fate of his other relatives and friends, some of whom have come under pressure for helping him or being close to him.
Jerome Cohen, the New York University law professor who will host Chen said this was a concern but said Beijing might be exercising restraint.
“Clearly we see that several people associated with Chen Guangcheng have seen pressure in recent days,” he said. “But I also note that they have been released fairly promptly, which is not in line with their usual practice. We could be seeing new tactics here, which may be a reflection of new orders.”
Chen’s case “has almost certainly earned its place in Chinese history,” writes Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “Future generations will likely compare Chen to the lone student who stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.”
Alongside the Bo Xilai affair, the two incidents have “reinforced the perception that the current Chinese political system is entering a period of elevated political risks,” while the fallout from the affair for Chinese diplomacy and the ruling Communist Party’s ability to maintain control will be “significant and lasting,” he contends:
The damage done to the Chinese government’s image abroad is incalculable. … People all over the world cared about Chen’s wellbeing because he was a powerful symbol for courage and social justice…. China may have invested tens of billions of dollars, including extravaganzas like the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai Expo, to boost its international standing. All it takes to undo such “soft power” offensives is one lonely blind man who dared to show to the rest of the world the cruelty and repressiveness of the current Chinese political system.
For the ruling party, the political implications are perhaps even more worrying.
Chen’s escape exposed the incompetence of its repressive apparatus and the failure of its censorship system and suggests that fear of repression is dissipating:
Chen escaped with the help of a network of friends and human rights activists, who risked their lives and liberty to spirit him away from danger and into the U.S. Embassy. More remarkably, after the Chen story broke, many of the same activists fearlessly served as the conduit between Chen and the outside world, even though several of them were detained and beaten up by the police. For the Chinese Communist Party, this is perhaps the most worrisome development – long-repressed dissidents are less afraid to challenge the regime directly.
“To the extent that authoritarian regimes maintain power largely through fear, the loss of fear on the part of the opposition initially and the ordinary people afterwards is almost certain to portend a profound crisis,” writes Pei:
As a result of the Bo and Chen incidents, we now know that the party’s rule isn’t resilient, but fragile. Its succession process remains unpredictable. …But when we put all the pieces of the puzzle together – the deep structural economic difficulties facing China, a rising sense of uncertainty and anxiety among the elites, an intellectual reawakening, and an emboldened dissident community – it may not be a stretch to say that China has entered a political phase that is fundamentally different from the past two post-Tiananmen decades.
The Bo controversy has boosted public cynicism but it doesn’t necessarily increase the likelihood of social or political unrest, says Andrew Nathan, a China scholar at New York’s Columbia University.
“That doesn’t mean the public in China is going to rise up in rebellion, but it’s definitely a big hole to climb out of,” said Nathan, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.