Should the Chen case set off a wave of political unrest and a widespread backlash against the Communist rulers and the entire Chinese governing structure, Johnson and Shirk warn the Asian giant's ascension to global power could be derailed.
Such a scenario "would, I think, be enough to make China a failed state," says Shirk. "Communist governments are brought down by splits at the top, not from the bottom up."
-- The Associated Press contributed.
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.