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Wang's stay in the U.S. consulate ended after 24 hours. He pleaded unsuccessfully for asylum, walked out and was whisked away by Chinese security personnel. But the brief episode set in motion the downfall of his patron Bo in China's highest-level political purge in two decades. In mid-April, Bo was suspended from the ruling 25-member Politburo, curtailing the career of a political and media sensation who courted Western businesspeople in English even as he pursued political campaigns redolent of Maoist nostalgia in Chongqing. His wife has been named a chief suspect in the "intentional homicide" of Heywood, who may have been poisoned by cyanide at a Chongqing holiday resort. Wang was bundled onto a plane to Beijing and hasn't been heard from since.
Meanwhile, after six days in U.S. custody, Chen left the embassy on May 2 and headed to a local hospital accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke. The same day, Clinton arrived in Beijing for delicate economic talks. Intense negotiations between the Americans and Chinese had a precarious outcome: Chen would stay in China, reportedly being assured of his safety by the Chinese side. "I am pleased we were able to faciliate Chen Guangcheng's stay and departure from the U.S. embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values," Clinton said in a statement. "The United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Mr. Chen and his family in the days, weeks and years ahead." But that carefully calibrated compromise was immediately tilted when Chen told friends and media on Wednesday evening that he now wanted to leave China and that there had been threats against his wife if he remained in the embassy.
The fallout from these twin tales--that of a purged party boss and a courageous activist--will have profound implications for U.S.-China relations. The quests for refuge by Wang and Chen have dragged the U.S. into what Beijing refers to as internal affairs and could feed into the delusions of Chinese hard-liners who see America's meddling hand everywhere. But more important, the consequences of the two cases may indicate the path China's future leaders will take. Will they kick up political and legal reform? Or indulge in knee-jerk defenses of the party's mandate to rule China? The audience in the country itself is now more engaged than ever. "These [two] events are like lava, these eruptions of disaffection that pop up like gushers," says Orville Schell, head of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York City. "In an open society, when these things happen, nobody notices. But in a controlled society they take on enormous symbolic importance and thus can become very toxic."