After a long period of stasis, Chinese politics have entered a dramatic new phase. While no one expects major change to arrive quickly, the previous sense of inevitability about China's internal trajectory is beginning to give way to growing unpredictability. For a long time, the animating China challenge for policymakers in the United States and Europe had been the integration of a rapidly rising power into the global economic and security order. Now they will need to do that while navigating a nation in political transition.
The echoes of Tiananmen Square have been coming thick and fast. Chen Guangcheng's escape to the U.S. embassy evoked leading dissident Fang Lizhi's getaway 23 years ago. The fall of populist Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, after his wife had been linked to the murder of a British businessman by his own police chief, has been widely deemed China's "gravest crisis since 1989." Even Premier Wen Jiabao's last-ditch attempt to push through political reforms has revived fading hopes that the man who stood at Zhao Ziyang's right hand as he tearfully told students in the square that "we came too late" might yet prove to be the spiritual successor of the liberalizing party secretaries of the 1980s.
The last decade had seen most of China's public life conducted in the shadows, as the fourth generation of China's communist leadership turned anti-charismatic politics into an art form. Little of the transformative excitement of China's rise could be found in speculation about back-room maneuvering in the party headquarters at Zhongnanhai or President Hu Jintao's leaden pronouncements. While the odd story spilled out of the black box - the anointing of Vice President Xi Jinping as China's next leader or the ousting of Shanghai party chief, Chen Liangyu - the lid quickly closed again. The main factions in the party, the Youth League and the princelings, made a good show of resolving their differences through consensus. And the narrative took hold that Beijing had established a model of adaptive authoritarianism - economically open, responsive to public opinion, but repressive when confronted with real political dissent - that could see off any challenges to its rule for a long time to come.
But now, from the top levels of government to the leading lights of the Chinese blogosphere, the sense that China's ossified politics is at a turning point has become pervasive. The failures of the party to make progress on curbing corruption and social injustice or tackling the next phase of China's economic reform have run up against rising public expectations and a rapidly changing communications environment. From the outrage over attempts by the authorities to cover up last year's high-speed train crash to the expulsion of corrupt party officials and police by the villagers of Wukan, incidents that could once have been discreetly suppressed now cascade across bulletin boards and microblogs. The result is an unprecedented set of opportunities to shape the attitudes of the Chinese public - and pressures to respond to it.
Some of the figures who have sought to ride this new wave of popular opinion have been dissidents and activists, whether Liu Xiaobo's Charter 08 manifesto, the shadowy progenitors of calls for a "Jasmine Revolution," or artist Ai Weiwei's performance-taunting of the party. But it has been the populist appeals and public rifts among top government officials that have proved even more potent. Bo Xilai's populist campaigns had the barely-concealed goal of translating his public support into a coveted seat on the next politburo standing committee, making his Maoist revivalism and "Chongqing model" of governance a matter of national debate. The ramifications of his spectacular demise are still being felt, with speculation increasing that China's first leadership transition in a decade may need to be delayed in order to deal with the political fallout. Bo's most forceful opponent, Wen Jiabao, used his last annual press conference not to reflect on ten glorious years at the helm of government but to make an open call for the urgency of reform, or risk China facing "historical tragedy."
Hopes that outside powers can stay above the fray will be in vain. The United States and Europe have already had to deal with the protagonists of these dramas literally knocking on their embassy and consulate doors. From Nobel Peace Prize winners to jailed artists, support and protection for dissidents is becoming once again a more active factor in day-to-day relations with China. De facto involvement in factional battles will at times be unavoidable. And for all the geo-strategic and geo-economic issues that are now at stake, at important junctures - such as last week - even these risk being overshadowed by raw domestic politics.