But when the end came for Bo -- in the form of removal from his official position following the news that his wife, Gu Kailai, may have been complicit in the murder of a foreign businessman -- the circumstances were no more bound by law and due process than that which Chen and his family have endured for years.
Upon his ouster from the party on April 10, the state news agency Xinhua announced that Bo would be investigated for "serious discipline violations." This language suggests that Bo will be subject to the party's own internal discipline system, but it remains unclear whether he will also face criminal charges. He has disappeared from view, and it is equally unclear whether his family has information regarding his whereabouts or whether he has access to a lawyer. While it's hard to generate sympathy for someone who built his career on nakedly disregarding the law, the fact remains that he too is entitled to due process.
There are a few lessons one can draw from these episodes.
One is that politics in China is extraordinarily opaque. Last month's rising political star has now vanished into the party's maw, while the fate of the long-suffering legal activist has the potential to disrupt a major diplomatic summit between the United States and China. The more important lesson may be that politics in China remain highly unpredictable. While to some it may be reassuring to see Chen relatively free and Bo detained, neither story will play out according to agreed-upon rules or procedures, or without abuses, often directed at third parties. Until such time as laws function predictably and free of political whims, one is left with the uneasy sense that few are safe from arbitrary treatment in China.
Other governments, particularly the United States, are scrambling to make sense of and respond to these riptides in China's domestic and international politics. Some will argue that for the United States to intervene in any aspect of Chen's or Bo's cases will jeopardize the bilateral relationship.
But this framing misses a few key points: Segments of Chinese society have had enough of officialdom's abusive, predatory behavior, and they see the prospect for change in Bo's fall and in Chen's persistent activism. At the end of the day, the fate of these men may not rest in U.S. hands. But there is real merit in foreign governments demonstrating unequivocally that their concern for relations with the government are matched by their concern for growing demands inside China for justice and the rule of law.