China's leaders in the glare of an unwelcome spotlight

By Damien Ma

Though the curious case of blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng has badly embarrassed China's leaders, it has provided them one important benefit -- it has diverted attention from the far more dangerous story of Bo Xilai. Regardless of the outcome in either case, the Communist Party's image has been badly tarnished. For a Chinese government that seems bent on investing in soft power, these last few months have offered clear reminders that soft power cannot be bought. It must be earned.

For a Chinese government that prefers to keep its differences behind closed doors, the Bo Xilai episode is a nightmare, in part because the involvement of the U.S. and British governments in the case has brought an unusual degree of international media scrutiny. (One of Bo's deputies briefly took refuge in the U.S. embassy, and Bo's wife has been implicated in the murder of a British businessman.) China's familiar tools of propaganda have been overwhelmed by frenzied speculation about the case in the Western press and China's social media echo chamber -- yet another reminder that Beijing can no longer afford to ignore Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter.

The party leadership has dismissed the Bo Xilai saga as a sideshow and Bo himself as an aberration within the country's otherwise upstanding roster of senior officials. But little of China's blogosphere appears to be buying it. Instead, Bo's story signals for many that China remains a corrupt and opaque place, that the unbridled capitalism practiced in China has mainly benefited politically-connected VIPs, and that greed has infected the leadership right to the top.

And though the drama surrounding Chen Guangcheng has given the public something new to speculate about, in some ways, the story reinforces the cynicism that Bo Xilai has exposed. Chen and Bo -- a powerless and once illiterate legal activist and a powerful political scion who long stood above the law -- seem polar opposites. But they have something important in common; both were left without a place to hide when the leadership decided they should be punished.

Few within the country believe that Bo or his wife will have their day in court, reinforcing public fear that average citizens have no real protection within a system manipulated for the benefit of the party. That Chen, like Bo Xilai's deputy, first sought sanctuary in the U.S. embassy underscores a point not lost on the Chinese public: The United States, not China's own government, offers protection of last resort in times of political turmoil.

These stories are engendering a growing trust deficit between the government and the informed public -- the very elites that the party counts as its crucial constituency. A perception of systemic "rot from within" and the lack of legitimacy it implies undermine the regime's monopoly hold on domestic political power.

Despite Premier Wen Jiabao's constant talk of political reform, the last decade of the Hu Jintao/Wen Jiabao administration saw an economy that raced ahead and a political system that changed very little. But to repair this latest damage to its "brand," the party may feel it has to produce some real change. Some within the leadership are already using this opportunity to push for political liberalization. In his closing arguments as premier, an increasingly legacy-conscious Wen Jiabao is making a final pitch for real political reform. But Wen is a lame duck.

Over the course of the next few months, China will introduce a new generation of top leaders. Any political changes they might produce are unlikely to fundamentally recast Chinese politics or to appear soon. But they may soon find that delivering go-go growth is no longer enough. They may find that, particularly in the online public square provided by social media, a growing segment of China's people will expect a new degree of accountability -- and a new kind of change.

Damien Ma is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Asia practice.

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