Chen case hints at crack in old consensus mold

2012-05-18Asia Times

BEIJING - The case of the blind dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who at the beginning of May escaped strict surveillance to escape house arrest and enter the US Embassy during a strategic dialogue between China and the United States, has one particular feature: Washington and Beijing reached two agreements about Chen's fate in less than 48 hours. This is unprecedented.

It is difficult for the Chinese leadership, constrained by the bonds of decision by consensus, to make fast decisions, but it happened, as during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, when within hours after the disaster, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was dispatched to the affected areas.

But to reach a decision (in this case, sending Chen to study to Tianjin) and then only hours later revoke it and come up with a creative idea (not exile to America, but a study program in the US) would have been impossible within the old mold of consensus politics.

Consensus among the top leadership is a process by which de facto most decisions, if not all, are taken unanimously. This process was initiated by Deng Xiaoping, who wanted to avoid the concentration of power China experienced with Mao Zedong and that made possible Mao's mistakes.

Consensus also enables the top leadership to minimize dissent at the highest echelons, since everybody is called on to agree with the majority view. Top-level dissent could breed sedition, which could create deeper fractions at lower levels.

The case of Chen, and the rapid succession of complicated decisions taken, leads one to conjecture that the old consensus policy is changing. On the American side, Chen's case was basically decided, we guess, by a small group of people centered on ambassador Gary Locke, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was then in Beijing, and President Barack Obama.

A similar structure was possibly at work on the Chinese side, with some chief negotiators discussing matters directly with State Councilor Dai Bingguo, Clinton's counterpart, and with President Hu Jintao.

Then Hu must have received a brief, a mandate from the politburo, granting him power to make decisions on some urgent matters of state security without formal meetings. The fact that the Chinese press didn't move to attack the Americans afterward further confirms the "power of attorney" granted to Hu.

It is impossible to think that Hu has the absolute power of Mao. The dispersal of power to the periphery, which started after Mao's demise, has been going on for some 35 years, and it is very hard to reverse it. But what we may be witnessing is the beginning of some kind of mandate and division of power. On some decisions, the periphery can rule, on some others the politburo has to agree, but in some cases, the president has ultimate authority.

It is not democracy, but it seems to resemble the division of power of the Catholic Church. Priests and bishops can decide local matters; for some long-term issues, the pope may want to get the agreement of the cardinals or the bishops; but for some pressing problems, the pope will intervene directly.

Chen's agreement might not have been ideal, and there was and could still be backlash from some local or even central authorities. But what would you expect from an agreement cut on the fly and imposed on a Chinese structure, which may not have wanted it and certainly did not know how to handle it or what to expect? Chen's case points to the circumstance that both sides didn't want to disrupt the strategic talks.

What derives from this is that Hu has new clout. We can only guess, because of the timeframe, that the case of Bo Xilai (the former Chongqing Chinese Communist Party chief suspended from his post after the February 6 flight of his aide, Vice Mayor and policed chief Wang Lijun, to the US consulate in Chengdu) had something to do with Hu's new status.

It seems that thanks to the cleanup following Bo's case, Hu was able to muster unprecedented powers that his predecessors did not have. With these powers, Hu can start political reforms and pave the way for reunification with Taiwan, a feat that escaped even the almighty Mao.

However, political reforms are bitterly opposed by mid-ranking officials who see clearly that greater transparency and some division of power will expose them to local public opinion and transfer some of their sway to the center.

The mid-ranking officials are the ones who stand to lose the most from political reform, as they will be put under the combined pressure of the people from below and leaders from above-and thus the possibility for corruption at this level, which directly hurts the common people, should decrease.

It is not clearly how strongly Hu will pursue political reforms, but definitely he has incentive to do so. He may want to leave a deep historical mark for his presidency, and political reforms improve the chances of reunification with Taiwan and peaceful development for China, two clear missions for China.

Moreover, in this situation, a concentration and division of power will be a legacy for his successor - come autumn with the 10-year transfer of power - who will have more levers to apply his policies without being obstructed at every step by a crowd with petty vested interests.  (2012-05-18 Asia Times)


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