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Chinese Shadows

NEW YORK – These are interesting times in China. A senior Communist Party official, Bo Xilai, is brought down – accused of offenses that include wire-tapping other party bosses, including President Hu Jintao – while his wife is investigated for her alleged role in the possible murder of a British businessman. Meanwhile, a blind human-rights activist escapes from illegal house arrest, finds refuge in the United States’ embassy in Beijing, and leaves the compound only after claims that Chinese authorities in his hometown had threatened his family.

Despite exhaustive press coverage of these events, it is remarkable how little we actually know. The British businessman’s body was allegedly cremated before any autopsy was conducted. None of the lurid tales about Bo’s wife have been proven. And the reasons for her husband’s political disgrace remain murky, to say the least.

Things always tend to get interesting in China before a National People’s Congress, where the Party’s next leaders are anointed. Leadership change in most democracies is a relatively transparent process; it follows national elections. To be sure, even open democracies have their share of opaque jockeying and deal-making in what used to be called smoke-filled rooms. This is particularly true in East Asian countries, such as Japan.

But, in China, everything takes place out of sight. Because leaders cannot be ousted through elections, other means must be found to resolve political conflicts. Sometimes, that entails deliberate public spectacles.