These days, running to the U.S. embassy in Beijing or consulates in other major Chinese cities seems to have become a favorite political pastime for prominent Chinese dissidents and high-flying Chinese government officials.
In less than three months, two well-known Chinese nationals have sought protection at the U.S. diplomatic facilities in China. While one of them, Chen Guangcheng, may well fit with the classic mold of a Chinese dissident, the other one, Wang Lijun, was perhaps the furthest thing from a traditional case of political asylum.
Mr. Chen is a self-taught human rights lawyer and blind from birth, he rose to prominence through his persistent criticism of Chinese government's forced sterilization policy. Mr. Wang, however, was no dissident at all. Wang Lijun was the lieutenant of Bo Xilai, a Chinese Communist Party Politburo member and one of the most powerful politicians in China. Known as the Eliot Ness of China, Mr. Wang served as the police chief of Chongqing, a major city in Southwest China and one of China's four Beijing direct-controlled municipalities - the other three are Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin.
To say that these "running to the U.S. embassy" cases are unusual would be an understatement. As U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke told Newsweek in a most recent interview, he was "stunned" to learn that Wang Lijun had arrived at the U.S. Consulate General in the southwestern Chinese city Chengdu. "My first reaction was," Ambassador Locke told Newsweek, "Oh, my God, I mean OH, MY GOD!" The dramatic development surrounding these "defections" had brought a certain reality show feel to it. But while most reality shows are harmless, these real life dramas have serious implications for China's political stability and economic development, especially at a time when Beijing is preparing for its leadership transition later this year.
Internationally, the Wang-Chen dramas have done significant damage to Chinese leaders' image and legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. As Harry Kazianis
of the Diplomat writes, "At some point, China lost control of a tightly scripted vision of how it wished to be perceived by the international community. With Chinese leaders' power based on its ability to control society, Beijing now faces dangerous undercurrents. This is the last thing China wanted now."
And as Douglas Paal of Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace points out, "Beijing had the potential in seeing whatever positive things it is trying to do with its soft power initiatives damaged by these incidents, efforts including creating things like Confucius Institutes on campuses around the world."
Domestically, the problem for China's leaders is that Wang-Chen episode is unlikely to be the last time that Beijing faces such dramas. The coming of the "Internet Era" has significantly reduced the central government's control of public opinion and its ability to keep a handle on events. As Paal noted, "The new media in China are fantastically efficient. There are over 300 million - I think closer to 500 million - Internet users in China now. And a lot of them get on these micro-blogs and talk about issues that are sensitive, and when the Great Wall of Censorship is imposed on them so they can't mention specific names, towns, or actions, they find homonyms and workarounds so that people are communicating constantly about issues that were unthinkably sensitive just a few years ago? Public taste for change is coming - they are demanding it."
Economically, the compelling dramas of Wang Lijun and Chen Guangcheng show that, as Jamie Metzl of Asia Society puts it, "unless China can purge the thousands of corrupt party leaders like Bo, and empower people - like those Chen represents - who have been left behind or harmed by rapid growth, its economy will increasingly suffer. A lot of outside investors on the economy would be concerned if they saw the system, which seemed to be more institutionalized over the last fifteen years, start to lose that institutional quality and therefore become more unpredictable."
The Wang-Chen cases are indications that more challenging times may lie ahead for the new Chinese leadership. They are likely to spur efforts on political reform in China. China's political reform can succeed only if it is initiated from inside China, from the top as well as the bottom. It will not be easy, but the future of China depends on it.
Dr. Xiaoxiong Yi is the Director of Marietta College's China Program.