Change is in the air. Literally and figuratively. Spring has come and is quickly giving way to summer. The details of winter—the incessant cold, the wearing of thermal underwear, scarf, coat and blanket while sitting in my room, the typing with bluish fingers, or the constant companion of my cup of hot water—are quickly fading into the murky realm of memory. Many here have caught that timeless spring fever with already two announced engagements and several couplings. However, underneath these typical and pleasant changes blow winds of trouble and uncertainty.
These are the winds that derailed high-level Chinese politician Bo Xilai from his seemingly solid career track to success and power. For those of you who don’t know Bo Xilai from boloney, his interest to the world at large began in February with a news blip about the police chief of Chongqing (Bo’s municipality) supposedly spending the day at the US embassy. Then over the next two months came a rapid-fire succession reports and rumors, which so deepened the intrigue that a first-rate crime novel could have been written. First, he was relieved of his position, as well as his almost assured place beside the new president later this year. Next, rumor connected his family with the suspicious death of a British national. Then came the official update that Bo’s wife was under investigation for what now most considered to be a homicide cover-up. During the highest point of tension, the Chinese government even blacked-out Weibo, the Chinese mini-blogging site, because of rumor about uprisings and a coup d'état in Beijing. To those students of history, it was very reminiscent of Tiananmen Square. I had a friend in Beijing at the time, and he confirms that there were military vehicles shutting down the government districts where he could actually hear gunshots. While this might not surprise some of you (as it did not surprise me), what is of great interest is the complete lack of concern exhibited by the majority of the population. As I discuss these events with some of my closer Chinese friends, I can’t help but notice the lackadaisical acceptance of what has occurred or is occurring. And it is not just a deficit in knowledge about events but a deficit in caring about events.
However, care they (and we) should. The sudden demise of Bo Xilai is a barometric warning of the change in political pressure and of the possibly approaching storm. At a time of Party-leadership transition—7 out of the 9 Central Politburo members are changing this year—both China and the world would hope to see stability and maintenance of the status quo. However, the falling out of Bo (and Bo’s friends) from the grace of the Party has created currents that leave the future both hard to predict and hard to prepare for. Perhaps some of this instability even contributed to the recent escape of Chen Guangcheng, a long-standing Chinese dissident, from house arrest and his temporary stay in the UN Embassy in Beijing. And while that situation has been resolved (to the relief of the United States government and the disappointment of human rights activists), the continuing atmosphere leaves one wondering what will happen next. Few, I think, would envy Hillary Clinton’s current responsibility at the annual meeting in Beijing of walking the tight rope of preserving trade relations and economic goodwill while simultaneously supporting America’s classic defense of human rights and democracy in the gusts of political upheaval.