Beijing's handling of a case involving a blind activist suggests dangerous political divisions at the top of the ruling Communist Party, splinters experts warn could plunge China into chaos.
The world is riveted by the fate of Chen Guangcheng, who took refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after escaping house arrest last week. While Chen appears disappointed with a U.S.-brokered deal that led to his release, the incident accelerated China's move toward a political and economic crossroads.
The Asian giant's rise to superpower status has been fueled by economic and social reforms. But experts say there are signs the Communist Party, fearing losing power, are in the midst of pumping the brakes on those changes while giving more leeway to the nation's brutal security forces.
"The fundamental problem is the Chinese Communist Party leaders are so insecure about threats to their rule and their own political legitimacy so they let the security police just get out of control with huge budgets, large staffs and fancy technology," says Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Program at the University of California-San Diego. "They've hijacked Chinese policy in a way that's very detrimental to Chinese interests."
The Chen saga and the recent scandal that includes murder allegations against former Chinese political rising star Bo Xilai have Communist Party leaders in a defensive crouch.
"Before Bo Xilai's fall, there was a sense that a new wave of political reforms was coming from party leaders," says Chris Johnson a former senior CIA China analyst now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "After all these recent events, I think there's evidence the party leadership will follow their instinct to retrench and crack down instead of taking the bold steps needed for further reforms."
Experts say Beijing has reached an inflection point where its leaders must choose between ushering in a new set of sweeping political and economic reforms or tightening their grip on power.
"After more than 30 years of rapid growth, China has reached another turning point in its development path when a second strategic, and no less fundamental, shift is called for," according to a recent World Bank study focused on China.
"The government will need to respond to a variety of risks, shocks, and vulnerabilities as they
arise; in doing so," the World Bank concludes, "it must hold fast to the principle that policy responses to short-term problems should uphold, not undermine, long-term reform priorities."
While such a second wave of reforms will required a unified Communist regime, the downfall of Bo Xilai "showed leaders are not unified in their views," UCSD's Shirk adds. "It seems there is a split at the top of the party."
Shirk says the treatment of Chen by local officials and Chinese security forces shows the party's central brass "have less control over them than we think."
Party leaders appear to slowly be realizing "they need to throttle the security police and restrain them in a major way," she says. "Whether or not they have the ability to restrain them to the point they can enforce the Chen agreement is very much an open question."
Senior U.S. State Department officials on Wednesday negotiated terms of Chen's release back into Chinese society. U.S. officials worked with their Chinese counterparts and Chen, brokering a deal under which the activist, a self-taught lawyer, and his family would be relocated to a university town where he could formally study the law. But shortly after he left the U.S. Embassy, Chen began telling anyone who would listen he feared for his family safety and wanted to leave China.
Experts question whether Beijing has enough control over local officials and the nation's security apparatus to ensure the safety of Chen's extended family and associates.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.