BEIJING — The dramatic escape from unlawful house arrest by blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng and the ongoing investigation into former Communist Party Politburo member Bo Xilai have presented China’s rulers with twin crises with a common theme: corrupt and abusive behavior by local party bosses and security officials operating with impunity in their fiefdoms far from the capital.
How the two cases are ultimately resolved may help answer one of the underlying puzzles of modern China’s political structure: How much do the central authorities tolerate such blatant abuses in the provinces, and how much escapes the control of Beijing?
Most analysts agree that given the party’s rigid hierarchy, little goes on that central government authorities are not fully aware of, and largely condone. But the rulers in Beijing also give local officials a wide degree of autonomy, including how to handle critics and stifle those considered troublemakers. And central leaders seem reluctant to intervene in local matters until problems escalate into full-blown crises that they cannot ignore.
Chen’s supporters, including in the international community, have complained long and loudly that he was being confined illegally by plainclothes armed thugs in his farmhouse in Dongshigu village in Shandong province. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others regularly raised Chen’s case with senior Chinese officials. And when actor Christian Bale was roughed up trying to visit Chen in December, central government censors knew enough about the case to black out the story on the CNN broadcast here.
“There’s no way they could have ignored it,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior Asia researcher based in Hong Kong for the group Human Rights Watch. “Because they want deniability, they delegate it to the local authorities.”
After years of international criticism of its human rights record, China’s rulers now seem to be allowing local authorities to take the lead in silencing critics, sometimes through spurious legal charges, large fines and lengthy jail sentences, and often through other extrajudicial means, such as house arrests and “disappearances.”
In the case of renowned artist and activist Ai Weiwei, for example, it is the Beijing municipal tax authority that has brought charges against him for alleged tax evasion involving a company he controls.
In Chen’s case, the local authorities behaved so crudely that his plight last year attracted the attention of Beijing’s Global Times newspaper, which is owned by the party and largely echoes the official line. “It is reported that both individuals and media were prevented from visiting [Chen] by local authorities,” the paper wrote in an Oct. 12 editorial. “Whether this is true and whether such measures are legal, there needs to [be] more reliable information released by local governments.”
Likewise, central government authorities, with state-run media parroting the party line, have depicted Bo Xilai’s case as an isolated incident. They have said the party’s central disciplinary committee, in charge of enforcing rules on more than 80 million party members, is investigating Bo for “serious violations,” reportedly including corruption and abuse of power.
The investigation of Bo began when his former police chief and right-hand man, Wang Lijun, left the city of Chongqing and entered the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, 200 miles away. Wang stayed at the consulate for more than 24 hours, revealing a tale of corruption, mistrust and alleged murder involving Bo, his wife, Gu Kailai, and his aides. Wang was then taken by central security agents to Beijing.
But stories of Bo’s ruthless methods, particularly during his crackdown on organized crime, have been circulating for years. And Bo’s measures to revive “red culture,” including ordering Chongqing television to broadcast only “patriotic” programs during prime time and organizing mass singalongs of Mao Zedong-era revolutionary songs, were widely covered in China’s media, and even attracted some criticism.
During his tenure in Chongqing, Bo became so toxic to party leaders that from the time he was appointed local party chief in November 2007 until his sacking in March, neither President Hu Jintao nor Premier Wen Jiabao visited Chongqing. Yet Bo was never publicly chastised or reined in by his bosses in Beijing.
In a March 14 news conference, Wen wagged his finger while he rebuked Chongqing’s authorities over the Wang Lijun incident and told them to “seriously reflect.” Wen also warned against a return to the violence of the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 until Mao’s death in 1976. That was seen as a direct repudiation of Bo’s “red revival” campaign.
But despite his stern tone, some analysts noted that Bo was earlier considered to be in line for a spot on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee during a leadership transition later this year. The central government was forced to act against Bo only because Wang’s unusual public flight to the consulate forced its hand.
Wang Xiangwei, chief editor of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, wrote in a column Monday that the two incidents together — Chen’s escape and Bo’s fall — show the need for the central government to exercise more control over local authorities.
Wang said Chen had done the right thing by exposing how officials in Linyi City, where his village is located, had forced thousands of women to have abortions against their will. “In any other country, Chen would have been hailed as a hero,” he said. “But in Shandong, he was treated as a criminal, jailed and constantly harassed after his release.”
“Even sadder, the central government seems powerless to stop local officials from committing such sins,” Wang wrote. “This may be very hard for outsiders to believe, but the leaders in Beijing have far less influence than expected in important regional decisions, whether they be economic or social. The latest example is Bo’s case. Bo ruled Chongqing as an overlord for five years, and leaders in Beijing seemed clueless until recently about how to deal with him.”
“This phenomenon does exist in China now,” said Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. “The local governments always screw something up, and the central government has to come in and cover up for them.”
“Many people believe China is a highly centralized country. But really, that’s a misunderstanding,” Hu said. “The central government’s power isn’t so big. . . . Some local officials, like the party secretary of a county or a city, is always called the ‘local emperor,’ which reflects how big their power is.”
Chen, in a video message to Wen on YouTube, seemed to offer the central authorities a way out of the current impasse — by blaming his plight on corrupt officials in Linyi and appealing to Beijing for help.
“I think Chen was very careful not to corner Beijing,” said Human Rights Watch’s Bequelin. “He essentially said, ‘I pretend that you, the central government, did not know about it, to give you an opportunity to respond positively.’ ”
“This is such an opportunity,” Bequelin said. “The question is, why isn’t Beijing doing it?”
Researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.