After Bo and Chen: How Beijing’s Intrigues Will Impact U.S.-China Relations

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TIME’s cover story this week (available to subscribers here), penned by our China bureau chief Hannah Beech, traces two separate yet equally convoluted political intrigues that have rocked Beijing and, as Beech writes, “riveted the world.” The first is the scandal of Bo Xilai, the charismatic politico and Communist Party scion whose astonishingly public fall from grace began with the mysterious arrival of his deputy at an American consulate. Subsequent revelations blew open a lid on corruption, deceit and murder at the heart of the Chinese state, all at a time when the head honchos in Beijing hoped for nothing more than a smooth, quiet leadership transition at the top.

The second story line has to do with Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist (and member of the TIME 100 class of 2006) kept under house arrest for half a decade until his dramatic escape this week to the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Chen has subsequently left U.S. protection, taken to a hospital where he was reunited with his family. According to some reports, Chen claims he was removed from the embassy compound against his will and wants desperately to be spirited away from the country altogether. The tense negotiations that took place between U.S. and Chinese officials — not to mention a fair amount of confused messaging — did little to dispel a bubbling sense of political crisis.

On one hand, the U.S. is keen to follow through on its stated commitment to human rights; handing over a high-profile activist to an uncertain fate is, if nothing else, a dangerous political move for the Obama Administration in an election year. But, given the depth and intricacy of the U.S. relationship with China, Washington has to play a delicate game and be careful not to provoke Beijing. Before the Chen debacle, top U.S. officials like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner were already slated to be in China for a strategic and economic powwow with their Chinese counterparts, where key issues of global trade and security — Syria, North Korea — were to be discussed. Those talks now occur under the long shadow of the Bo and Chen incidents — political imbroglios that, in the Chinese context, are necessarily highly sensitive. As China scholar Orville Schell tells TIME:

“These [two incidents] are like lava, these eruptions of disaffection that pop up like gushers,” says Schell, head of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York City. “In an open society, when these things happen, nobody notices. But in a controlled society they take on enormous symbolic importance and thus can become very toxic.”

The two controversies exposed profound cracks in the edifice of a state pinned together still by powerful narratives of propaganda. Beech writes:

A leadership that prefers to shroud its decisionmaking in secrecy has been forced to deal with unexpected crises that speak to the manifold issues facing the incoming crop of communist rulers — massive abuse of power and corruption within party ranks, a stunning lack of rule of law in a nation obsessed with bureaucracy, and an increasingly restive, wired populace no longer content to accept the say-so of government propagandists … China has lost face during the Chen episode. A state obsessed with stability can only be humiliated when a blind man evades what is supposed to be the world’s most comprehensive security apparatus, one that received $100 billion in funding last year, according to official figures. Beijing has been responding to the crises by buttressing its legitimacy.

A jittery political environment historically leads nationalist, nondemocratic governments — not least the mandarins of Beijing — to crack down on dissent at home. The dragnet is already falling on a number of Chinese activists and netizens who formed Chen’s local network of support. But the current climate also can lead to a hardening posture abroad.

As it is, there are deepening concerns in Beijing over the direction of Washington’s much trumpeted strategic “pivot” away from the Middle East and toward Asia and the Pacific — a shift in American policy that some argue amounts essentially to a containment strategy for China. While the world watches the Chen affair play out, tensions have flared once again in the South China Sea, a body of water that China claims almost in its entirety, but which is contested by a host of Southeast Asian countries, some of which have U.S. backing. For the past three weeks, a handful of Chinese fishing vessels and patrol ships have been locked in a standoff with a Philippine coast guard ship after the Chinese boats were spied operating off the Scarborough Shoal, a set of bare islets in the South China Sea that are widely recognized to be in Manila’s jurisdiction. The U.S. has not overtly picked sides in the dispute, but promised to support Philippine security. Last year in Hanoi, Clinton suggested that the South China Sea — a vital conduit of global trade — was a “national interest” of the U.S., a claim that surely raised Chinese hackles.

(MORE: Chen Guangcheng Tells TIME: ‘I Want My Family to Leave China’)

The current Chinese-Philippine impasse is nothing new for the region: in recent years, such confrontations — whether involving fishing boats or oil-exploration rigs or surveillance craft — have occurred at an increasingly alarming clip, particularly over the disputed Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes. Chinese rhetoric over its supposed maritime sovereignty has grown more strident, in keeping with the country’s ballooning military expenditure and rapidly modernizing navy. As a result, other countries agitated by China’s new assertiveness, like Vietnam, have sought to tighten military links with the U.S. The territories at the heart of the disputes over the South China Sea — mostly inconsequential, uninhabited spits of land in the sea — have come to carry a heavy geopolitical weight, lodestones for nationalist publics around the region. An International Crisis Group report about the politics of the South China Sea cited the role that symbolism plays in policymaking:

Beijing has deliberately imbued the South China Sea disputes with nationalist sentiment by perpetually highlighting China’s historical claims. This policy has led to a growing domestic demand for assertive action. While Beijing has been able to rein in nationalist sentiment over the South China Sea when it adopts a specific policy, this heated environment still limits its policy options and its ability to manage the issue.

And so, as troubled waters get further roiled, it’s hard to imagine this current round of U.S.-China diplomacy bearing much fruit. The two countries are of course not poised for direct confrontation. But in an overly heated moment — from the corridors of power in Beijing to the American election cycle to a lick of coral and rock in the South China Sea — the outlook for progress dims.

MORE: Bo Xilai’s Low-Profile Elder Son Says Scandal ‘Destroyed’ His Life