Argument

Shanghaied

Why you shouldn't believe everything you read about China. Hint: not even the journalists really know what’s going on.

When I reported in China from 2005 to 2011 it was remarkable how little the foreign correspondent community -- myself included -- really knew about what was going on in the top ranks of the Communist Party.

Ministers and agency heads occasionally talk to the foreign press; senior leaders almost never do. Of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the governing body that runs China, only Premier Wen Jiabao answers questions with any regularity at press conferences (he holds one every year); he's also pretty much the only figure who has given interviews with foreign media. But when the Financial Times spoke with him in London in 2009, there were 15 other ministers and senior officials in the room, sitting in rows of chairs facing Wen. It was never clear if they were there to support or to monitor him.

Politics was a black box, walled off from the rest of the country in its own private courtyard. In its place are courtly rituals, such as the jaw-dropping National Day parades held every decade and the Party Congress planned for this autumn in the Great Hall of the People. That's when the hitherto unknown members of the next Standing Committee will make their debut in their new positions. Chinese people, foreign journalists -- and, correspondingly, the rest of the world -- will on that day learn the identity of China's new leaders and how they rank by the order in which they file on stage. But not until then.

That, anyway, was how things were supposed to work. Over the last three months, that carefully crafted script has seemingly been torn to shreds. The messy downfall of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, once widely tipped for a place in the new magic circle, has thrust Chinese politics onto front pages across the world. The surprising thing about the Bo case is not that he was ousted -- his shameless self-promotion and ruthless tactics always made him a strong candidate for a back-room putsch -- but the sheer torrent of information that has come out about Bo and his family. It is as if modern China, protected by its Great Firewall and army of censors, has in one swoop entered the 24/7 news era, with its mixture of well-informed exclusives and shameless rumor-mongering.

To recap for anyone who has missed the story -- and how could you? -- it all began to fall apart in February when Wang Lijun, Chongqing's police chief and one of Bo's right-hand men, suddenly appeared in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, 300 miles away, seeking refuge. By some accounts, he asked for asylum, by others he wanted a place to hide while central government security officials from Beijing arrived, so that he would not be turned over to Bo's police. Whatever the plan, he started to talk, leading to Bo's ouster.

Since then, international readers have been treated to a tour de force of foreign correspondence, shining more light on the realities of power in China in a few weeks than over the last few years. First came the Bo family connection to the suspicious death of Neil Heywood, an English businessman who had a soft spot for linen suits and who helped win Bo's son Guagua a place at Harrow, one of Britain's most exclusive boarding schools. Beijing has now confirmed that Gu Kailai, Bo's wife, is under investigation over Heywood's murder. Businessmen have since come forward with tales of being extorted by Bo's cronies in Chongqing and, in some cases, tortured. Bo was even somehow able to bug the phones of other senior leaders, according to one article.

Within weeks of his dismissal, the foreign media had also revealed that the extended family of Bo, who built his reputation as a crusader against corruption and had an official salary of around $1,500 a month, had amassed a fortune that Bloomberg put at $136 million. There were directorships on important state-owned companies, dubious share awards, and sweetheart business ventures with the state, such as providing fire extinguishers to government buildings. Western news was filled with tales of torture, murder, and corruption -- the charge sheet of a gangster boss rather than a politician.

But as the scandal moves from the immediate circumstances to the broader political fallout, the Bo case could become harder to report. Political stories in China can be like quicksand. White House reporters might not get to talk too often to the president, but they can speak to people who were in the room with him when he makes a decision. In China, foreign reporters have to rely on more removed sources: advisors, Chinese journalists, foreigners who have recently met senior leaders, and lower-level bureaucrats. All sources have an agenda, but the more tenuous their link to power, the harder it can be to decode their bias -- or assess their credibility. Even with reporting on Bo's fall, stories about his phone-tapping antics and links to the death of Heywood depended heavily on anonymous sources. Trying to gauge the political machinations of a group of a few dozen standing committee members, kingmakers, and PLA generals is at best an imperfect task when much of the information is coming third-hand.

At the same time, having been initially stumped by the uncertainty over Bo's fate, the propaganda authorities now seem to be stepping up their efforts to try and mold the narrative -- even if sometimes in a pretty clumsy manner. Time's Hannah Beech says that three separate sources in the space of one day repeated the same talking points, describing Bo to her as being like Adolf Hitler. Two others told her his behavior was reminiscent of Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair. Even for hack propaganda officials, the leap from Hitler to Lewinsky is quite a stretch.

But for the Beijing press corps, which finally has an eager audience, the biggest temptation is to turn the Bo saga into a broader political morality play between the hardliners who have stifled political reform since the 1989 Tiananmen protests and the liberal reformers, if there indeed are any. If Bo, who had become something of a hero to Chinese leftists, is the villain of the play with his trampling of the rule of law, then Wen has been auditioning for the role of hero. Shortly before Bo's ouster, he warned about the danger of a "new Cultural Revolution" and has since talked about "smashing" vested interests in the party.

But that's only one side of the story. The reporters in China trying to sift through the hints and rumors about political reform face the peril of access -- the tricky reality that Chinese liberals and human rights activists tend to view foreign journalists as sympathetic to their views and are more likely to return their calls. The security types, propaganda officials, hard-line generals, and other conservative heavyweights do not. I would be quite surprised, for instance, if any foreign reporter had ever met Zhou Yongkang since he became China's security chief five years ago -- our occasional requests for an interview were usually greeted with a nervous laugh. But in that time, he has often been the power-behind-the-throne, the person responsible the waves of crackdowns on dissidents and lawyers. He was the Chinese official on the stage in Pyongyang on the day in 2010 when Kim Jong-il presented his son as his successor. Chinese officials would occasionally drop his name (but nothing more) into conversation with a raised eyebrow, as if that is all they need to say to explain how a situation would develop.  

So what actually is happening in China, and how should you read the news about Beijing's political instability?  

China is clearly ripe for a new wave of long-delayed political and economic reform that would include opening the financial system, greater independence for the legal system, and more experiments in democracy. And it is entirely possible that the upheaval over Bo, who was a hero to China's radical leftists, could help open the way to a new reform push.  

But a backlash from these leftists might already be underway. The dramatic events surrounding the escape of blind activist Chen Guangcheng might have provided one opening. U.S. officials helping Chen get into the embassy in Beijing after he had fled from house arrest could have allowed the security forces to complain about foreign interference in the country. Many of Chen's friends have been caught up in a new crackdown and scores of foreign journalists who went to the hospital where he is convalescing have been threatened with having their visas revoked. In the debates now roiling the Communist Party, we are only getting the views of one of the factions. The Bo scandal has provided a rare peek into the lives of China's leaders, but it has not yet revealed how the Party really views the big political questions that lie ahead of it.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages

Argument

Israel's Spy Revolt

The war of words over an Israeli attack on Iran is splitting the political leadership from military and intelligence chiefs. And that dangerous divide in Jerusalem might well lead to real war.

Something has gone very wrong with Israel's posture on Iran's nuclear program. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak lead a confrontational approach -- including dramatic interviews and speeches to U.S. audiences that have convinced many that Israel might soon strike Iran's nuclear facilities -- the former heads of Israel's intelligence agencies have come out publicly against the government's position. First, Meir Dagan -- who headed the Mossad until late 2010 and coordinated Israel's Iran policy -- called an attack on Iran "the most foolish thing I've heard." In April, Yuval Diskin -- the previous head of the domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet -- voiced a scathing and personal critique of Netanyahu and Barak. Diskin questioned not only the leaders' policy, but also their very judgment and capacity to lead, warning against their "messianic" approach to Iran's nuclear program.

Given these differences, should the United States -- and Iran -- fear an Israeli strike more, or should they relax as Israel busies itself with internal arguments? Although it may be tempting to think that the Dagan-Diskin campaign lessens the chance of confrontation, in truth it raises two dire possibilities. First, if the former spy chiefs are correct about Netanyahu's and Barak's lack of judgment, this is hardly cause for comfort. If, however, Dagan and Diskin are mistaken and Israeli strategy is in fact calculated and sober, then undermining Israel's credibility -- as they themselves have done -- makes an Israeli strike more likely, not less. The less credible the Israeli threat, the more likely Iran is to try to call an Israeli bluff, and thus the more likely Israel is to try to back up its words with deeds.

At the core of the question is how one interprets Israel's confrontational approach to Iran. Some view the Netanyahu-Barak strategy as a deliberate attempt to push the United States and the international community into decisive action, including tough sanctions and the threat of U.S. military action, lest Israel strike unilaterally. Israel, in this view, is acting as a "rational madman," calculating that appearing reckless will compel the United States, the international community, and Iran to heed its warnings. In an interview with the Hebrew daily Israel Hayom, Barak in effect said as much: The critics "travel the world, and their words weaken the considerable achievement of Israeli policy, where we made the Iranian issue a major, urgent issue, not only for Israel but for the world." For Barak, Israel's strategy has been manifestly successful, focusing the attention of a reluctant, distracted international community on Iran's nuclear program and producing stifling sanctions on the Iranian banking system.

But not all view the Israeli strategy this way. Some observers, both foreign and Israeli, are convinced that Netanyahu and Barak are genuine in their doomsday rhetoric and resolve to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. If Netanyahu is willing to evoke the Holocaust and warn of the Iranian "existential threat," the argument goes, he cannot mean anything less -- nor can he politically afford anything less -- than overt military action. Netanyahu indeed has been preoccupied with the Iranian question for decades and may view stopping Iran's nuclear ambitions as a generational challenge that will define his term. In this view, the Netanyahu-Barak rhetoric is meant to prepare the international community for an Israeli strike, which, according to Barak, would require international legitimacy.

The confusion over what Netanyahu and Barak actually mean is no accident. The key to deterrence is the credibility of the deterrent; the key to a "rational madman" strategy is that others do not see his posture as a bluff. From outside the prime minister's office, therefore, the two explanations for Israel's position are, by design, functionally equivalent.

One's view of the Dagan-Diskin critiques therefore depends on one's assessment of Netanyahu and Barak. If Diskin is correct about the leaders' lack of judgment, the former spy chiefs are breaking their silence to stave off a grave danger. But if Diskin is wrong, the former spy chiefs' words hold serious consequences for Israeli strategy -- by undermining the credibility of the threat of military action. On the face of it, accusations of messianic tendencies fit perfectly with a madman posture, further scaring the world into action. Dagan in particular was exposed to -- and indeed produced -- the most classified intelligence on Iran's program; he helped manage Israel's covert response to the program for years and participated in some of the most sensitive meetings with the political leadership. If the former intelligence chiefs, who should know best, are so concerned as to speak publicly against their own leadership -- something that appears odd to most Israelis, as it does to many abroad -- then surely foreign observers should believe the sincerity of the Israeli warnings.

On the other hand, although the Netanyahu government firmly commands the military (full-scale military disobedience is not even contemplated in Israeli society), it does not operate in a vacuum. The heads of the military, the Mossad, and the Shin Bet are household names whose assessments carry weight in Israeli public opinion. When such high-profile officials publicly question the leadership's judgment, Israelis listen. Although some (such as Barak in his Israel Hayom interview) have questioned Dagan's and Diskin's motives in speaking publicly, and although Netanyahu's political allies have struck back forcefully and impugned their civic responsibility, few doubt the sincerity of their position. Dagan and Diskin, moreover, are not alone. Former military commanders, and even the current chief of staff, appear to hold different views from the political leadership on the severity of the Iranian threat. The new vice prime minister and former defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, voiced his support of Diskin before joining the Netanyahu government. Even among the most hawkish senior ministers, there is opposition to Barak's approach, especially on the urgency of a strike; Vice Prime Minister Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon, a former chief of staff like Mofaz, has implicitly criticized Barak's notion of a "zone of immunity" -- a point at which Iran's facilities would be immune to an attack if Israel did not act quickly -- noting, "Anything fortified by a human can be penetrated by a human."

With all this opposition, it may be no surprise that the public is wary of a unilateral strike; according to a recent survey by Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution, only 19 percent of Israelis endorsed an Israeli strike without U.S. support, and 32 percent opposed an attack regardless. Israeli public opinion may simply not permit the political leadership -- always careful of the electoral ramifications of its actions -- to undertake a step as bold as a unilateral military strike. Most importantly: Iranian and international observers know this. 

With the U.S. presidential election in November and ongoing talks between Iran and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), the possibility of an Israeli strike will likely remain low for the time being. An Israeli airstrike would require carefully orchestrated precision bombing that would be sensitive to weather conditions, meaning that the next window for an Israeli airstrike would likely be in the spring of 2013. Still, if Israel has any say in the matter, the Iranian nuclear issue will not go away. If the results of the P5+1 negotiations do not ensure the verifiable end to high-level uranium enrichment and the removal of existing highly enriched uranium from Iran, Israel may return to the warpath. And the new national unity government in Israel, though it may moderate the leadership's position somewhat, will also grant the government valuable domestic political cover for a strike, should one be ordered.

The lesson from the intelligence chiefs' "revolt" in Israel, therefore, should not be complacency, but concern. Toward the end of 2012, the world will face either an Israel that is determined to use overt force to stop a nuclear-armed Iran, as Dagan and Diskin suggest, or a "rational madman" who believes he needs to repair the credibility that some of Israel's most prominent military and intelligence chiefs have undermined. Either way, it is vital that the international community maintain its focus on the Iranian nuclear program so that the Israeli bluff -- if there is one -- is not tested.

GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images