After the daring escape of a blind Chinese dissident from house arrest and a string of corruption allegations in Chongqing, some are questioning whether Beijing has given local officials too much autonomy over public security. Away from the watchful eye of the central government and contrary to nascent reform efforts, a culture of impunity has flourished.
James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says reports that former Chongqing Communist Party leader Bo Xilai wiretapped President Hu Jintao are plausible because Beijing has relinquished control of its surveillance and information technology to regional leaders.
"Whether it’s wireless or a landline or Internet, you need to control those companies in some way," he said. "And that’s where the ownership and control of local networks, the security services, turns out to be the determining factor."
Bo, the charismatic son of one of the Communist Party's founding fathers, forged powerful alliances with key telecommunications and security officials. Among the purported allies, according to the New York Times, was Fang Binxing, the dean of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, and the so-called father of China's "Great Firewall."
The security apparatus in China is enormous. The country has dedicated about $110 billion to its domestic security budget this year, an even bigger pot than its defense spending. Keeping a close eye on the people has soared in importance as China’s citizens become more connected online, and more vocal offline about perceived injustice.
Bo led the charge, receiving funding from the central government to turn Chongqing into a testing ground for China’s most advanced surveillance technology. He embarked on a heavy-handed crackdown on organized crime, while reviving Mao-era Communist songs in a campaign he called "sing red, smash black." Bo's police chief, Wang Lijun, oversaw the anti-crime activites that human rights groups say involved torture and the detention of thousands of wrongly accused suspects.
The same wiretapping and surveillance equipment used in that campaign was used to monitor the activities of local officials and, according to the New York Times, President Hu in a phone call last August to an anti-corruption official visiting Chongqing.
Culture of impunity
Using covert means to compile information to bring down political rivals is as old a practice as politics itself - in China and just about every other country, including the United States.
But rarely do you see such a high-level leader, like President Hu, under siege from such a mid-level, albeit influential, figure, like Bo.
"You have a sense of impunity, particularly at the top of the party leadership and for those who are descended from revolutionary gods,” said Lewis. “You put the two together and you see things like this Bo story.”
That impunity came to an end in March, when the government stripped Bo of key party posts and accused him of “serious disciplinary violations." His wife, Gu Kailai, faces murder allegations in the death of British businessman Neil Heywood.
Loss of confidence
Cheng Li, a China analyst with the Washington-based research group the Brookings Institute, says most Chinese do not feel like they’re living in a police state, but Bo's case and the story of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng, have rattled the public’s confidence in the system.
“The system is now known for its police brutality and torture. It failed because it does not provide any security for the Chinese public in terms of the terrible violation of law. So that certainly is a wakeup call for the Chinese government,” he said.
Bo couldn’t be any more different from Chen, the activist lawyer whose recent breakout from house arrest was the first news to push Bo from the headlines in weeks. But both knew intimately how Chinese officials can and will operate outside the rule of law.
After Chen served four years in prison for damaging property and disrupting traffic, the lawyer and his family were then trapped in their own home. Local Shandong province officials blocked the road to his house, put bars on his windows and installed security cameras.
An informal army of plainclothes thugs chased away visitors and, according to Chen's wife, severely beat and tortured both her and her husband. Human rights groups say local officials were punishing Chen for his work exposing forced abortions.
U.S. officials say Chen left the U.S. embassy in Beijing on Wednesday to get hospital treatment and be reunited with his family. They say he received guarantees from China that he would be relocated to a "safe" location and allowed to attend university.
Beijing has not commented on Chen's case, nor has it acknowledged the reports of Bo's alleged wiretapping. But it has plastered state media reports of Bo's alleged corruption with pledges that transparency and the rule of law will be upheld.
Which laws are being enforced is not as transparent, however. China has two legal systems: One of party discipline and the other of state law.
Bo is being held under “shuanggui,” informal detention enforced by Communist Party disciplinary bodies outside the courts. His wife and Wang likely will face charges under the newly revised criminal procedure law. Chen was subject to house arrest that had no basis in Chinese law.
Jacques deLisle, the director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, says the cases reveal the weaknesses in China’s legal system.
“In fact, it works quite badly in highly politically charged cases, which includes both people who are characterized as dissidents or activists, such as Chen Guangcheng, who takes on misbehavior or human rights violations by state actors, and somebody like Bo Xilai, who is so far up in the chain that he faces essentially politically-driven sanctions,” he said.
China at a crossroads
DeLisle says the central government, concerned about social stability during a leadership transition, is at a crossroads.
“So they’re facing a choice of restarting and resuming what had been stalled reform or doubling down on trying to keep things under control and keep tumult within the party and within society in check,” he said.
President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao will be transferring power to a new generation of leaders next year, after slow but steady efforts to clean up corruption and improve governance in the party ranks. The demise of Bo, who was expected to join the country's top leadership body, signals Beijing wants to steer away from the Maoist-style personality cult he propagated in Chongqing.
Reconsidering Chen's fate, and holding Bo, his wife and his police chief accountable for alleged corruption, murder and abuse of power send a positive signal, says Cheng Li.
“This potentially could be a landmark event for China’s civil rights movement,” he said, adding that the Communist Party has an opportunity to promote an independent legal system, and make its members answerable to the constitution.
But the likelihood of massive reform during a political transition is unlikely, according to deLisle, who says it will take a couple years for China’s new leaders to reveal their policies.
“I don’t think anybody thinks they’re going to start out of the gate being radical reformers, unless a crisis really forces that upon them," he said. "And so far, I don’t think we’re facing a crisis of that magnitude."