“Shortly after a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in 2010, some senior Chinese leaders began asking if the rebellions that followed throughout the Arab world could ignite similar uprisings in China, according to U.S. diplomatic and intelligence reports” seen by Bloomberg’s Indira A.R. Lakshmanan :
Some members of China’s ruling Politburo, the reports reveal, began musing about whether bribery and other abuses of power were undermining the Communist Party’s authority at least 16 months before the corruption scandal surrounding deposed party leader Bo Xilai shined an international spotlight on the issue. The reports were described by five U.S. officials familiar with the contents who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the intelligence is classified.
As the Arab Spring revolts spread from Tunisia to Egypt and Libya after vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation on Dec. 17, 2010, the reports said, some Politburo members questioned whether protests might follow against Chinese provincial politicians demanding bribes; local party officials confiscating land; and products and government services rendered shoddy by influence peddling, the U.S. officials said.
The revelations come at a potentially fraught time in US-China relations, with the audacious escape of human rights advocate Chen Guangcheng (above), presenting a policy dilemma to both Washington and Beijing.
“Both countries appear eager to avoid a standoff that threatens to mar relations and, most immediately, to eclipse annual talks scheduled to begin in Beijing on Thursday,” say New York Times analysts Steven Lee Myers and Andrew Jacobs. “But Mr. Chen’s professed desire to remain in China could result in a prolonged stalemate that undercuts cooperation on other global security issues.”
Chen’s case is highlighting the fallacies of rule of law in China and the authorities’ post-Arab Spring nervousness about the prospect of politicized social unrest.
“This puts China in a dilemma, as the government has spent the better part of the last month telling people China is a law-governed society and law-based government,” said Victor Shih, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. “The Chinese government should then, according to law, protect Chen Guangcheng, who has not broken any laws.”
“The leadership is quite insecure now,” said Michael Green, an associate professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a former senior director for Asia at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.
The ruling Communist party is especially agitated that the scandal involving ousted neo-Maoist Bo Xilai is exposing the degree of corruption within the ruling elite.
The leadership will curtail the investigation into Bo and his family and present him as an outrider, analysts say.
“They’re going to limit this as much as possible –identify the main tumor, excise it and move on,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. “They’re not going to go into a mass purge if they can avoid it, because everyone at the top leadership has a complex web of connections.”
The Bo controversy has boosted public cynicism but it doesn’t necessarily increase the likelihood of social or political unrest, said 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.