Correction Appended May 8, 2012
In China these days, the last refuge of both scoundrels and heroes is turning out to be a U.S. diplomatic compound. Two unscripted but parallel dashes for safety have riveted the world and, more important, have affirmed long-foreshadowed plot points in the narrative of the 21st century's would-be superpower: first, that the People's Republic is in the hands of an elite riddled with corruption and nepotism, and second, that those who crusade for the basic legal rights of the powerless must on occasion deal with feudal repression. Those elements have always lurked amid the often dazzling spectacle of modern China. Now two desperate men knocking at the doors of U.S. diplomats have ensured that China's shortcomings can no longer be ignored.
On Feb. 6, in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu, where the air is thick with the bouquet of the famous local chilies, the U.S. consulate fielded an unexpected visitor. Wang Lijun, police chief of the nearby megalopolis of Chongqing, was an infamous man. Having made his name as a swashbuckling crime buster, in his spare time he patented a sexy winter coat for female cops, oversaw autopsies on executed prisoners and reportedly eavesdropped on conversations of China's top leaders. For years Wang's patron was Bo Xilai, China's most charismatic politician, whose star seemed destined for the greatest heights of China's ruling Communist Party. But Wang had just had a falling out with Bo and presented a rather different image of him to stunned U.S. diplomats, spinning a tale of intrigue and deceit, with the Chongqing party boss at its center. The most explosive allegation was that Bo's wife Gu Kailai, a glamorous lawyer who had written a best-selling book called Winning a Lawsuit in the U.S., was complicit in the murder of Neil Heywood, a British business consultant who had been found dead in Chongqing in November. The reason? The Englishman, who met Bo and Gu years ago, may have asked for too big a cut for funneling part of the Bo family's ill-gotten wealth overseas.
Then on April 27, in smog-choked Beijing, another Chinese fled into U.S. protection. Chen Guangcheng, a blind legal advocate who was named one of Time's 100 most influential people in 2006, had been under extralegal house arrest since 2010 after spending years in jail. His offense? Defending women in Shandong province who were forced to undergo abortions or sterilizations in a misguided application of China's one-child family-planning policy. After scaling a wall under cover of darkness, he sneaked past the clutch of thugs who had guarded his stone farmhouse for years. He stumbled on for hours until, bloody and bedraggled, he rendezvoused with activists who spirited him to Beijing, 500 km away. In November, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged China's leaders to stop persecuting Chen, one of China's most respected activists. Suddenly, he was in the hands of the astonished Americans.