There are many ways to read the odyssey of dissident Chen Guangcheng: China’s leaders are heartless thugs; Hillary Clinton wimped out; the rights activist is either emotionally unstable or a master opportunist mugging for the international cameras.

Those still grappling to get their heads around the Bo Xilai scandal now have another example of how the truth in Beijing is often impossible to discern. We are days, or perhaps years, away from understanding how the blind Chen escaped from house arrest, knocked on the U.S. Embassy’s door 300 miles away, fell back into Chinese custody and now wants to flee, perhaps only temporarily, to the U.S. to study. We may have to wait until Ang Lee or Steven Spielberg brings this tale to the big screen.

Yet a couple of early insights can be gleaned from how the U.S. and China are handling Chen’s case and that of ousted Communist Party Politburo boss Bo.

A few years ago, Chen’s daring escape and public plea for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Clinton would have been suppressed. There might be Beijing whispers about Chen, but no internationally transmitted images, no CNN interviews, no public airing of what did, or didn’t, transpire behind closed doors as Chinese and U.S. officials bargained over his fate. It’s simply becoming harder for China to keep a tight lid on dissent. That alone could usher in major change.

Challenging 2012

Might Chen inspire more such incidents? A rash of high-profile copycat defections would make 2012, a year when China will undergo a once-in-a-decade leadership change, wildly unsettling. Or could the international focus, coming at a time when China fears Arab Spring-like uprisings, trigger a major clampdown?

Bo’s fate, too, suggests China is finding it harder to control the news and the narrative. The story of the former Chongqing party secretary fuses allegations of corruption, greed and espionage at the same time as Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, has garnered attention for her possible involvement in the murder of a British businessman. This metastasizing scandal isn’t one China wants in the global headlines. And yet it is, daily and relentlessly.

The U.S.’s response to Chen’s plight is telling. At the moment, at least, Barack Obama’s administration is looking less than exemplary. The details of the Chen incident are murky, but this saga shows how touchy the U.S. is about offending the Chinese. It doesn’t seem to me that America went as far as it could to protect Chen and his family, who he says have been threatened by Chinese authorities. It’s another sign of how the balance of power has shifted in the U.S.-China relationship.

China is aware of its rising strength and understands that its ambitions are tied to rapid economic growth. U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is kidding himself if he thinks China will allow the yuan to appreciate against the dollar, potentially weakening its export-driven economy. China will pay lip service to Hollywood and Silicon Valley about clamping down on piracy, while looking the other way as tens of millions make a good living engaging in it. Those hoping China will lead on climate change are dreaming.

So let’s not pretend any one U.S.-China summit, this one included, matters all that much. China is undergoing a major leadership change this year with Xi Jinping expected to replace President Hu Jintao. It is taking place amid the biggest scandal to face the Communist Party in decades. Against that backdrop, the U.S. could have sacrificed this week’s Beijing summit with China’s departing leaders and little would have been lost.

Disorienting Ties

Trying to gauge the shifting China-U.S. relationship can be disorienting. A side effect of the U.S. crisis that began in 2008 is that largely poor, developing China is America’s leading foreign creditor. Were China to start selling its vast holdings of U.S. Treasuries, markets would go nuts.

At one point, it seemed politically savvy to put bond markets ahead of human rights. Clinton did just that in her maiden trip to China as secretary of State in early 2009. Gone was talk of political prisoners and censorship; in was Clinton waxing eloquent about how “our economies are so intertwined” that it would be bad for China if the U.S. couldn’t finance its deficit spending.

There’s another reason swapping bonds for human rights looked like the right approach. In the previous eight years the U.S. invaded Iraq without provocation, seized terror suspects like a rogue dictatorship and flouted international law by holding prisoners indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay. Beating up on China for human rights looked hypocritical.

The Chen saga is a remarkable bookend for Obama. A year ago this week, we celebrated the killing of Osama bin Laden. The world applauded Obama’s audacious decision to take out the al-Qaeda leader. Obama took a victory lap in Afghanistan this week, a well-deserved one, too.

Then you consider the apparent absence of audacity -- and obvious clumsiness -- in how the White House handled the Chen affair. When the Obama administration had a chance to tell the world what it’s made of, it answered very clearly: debt, and lots of it.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: William Pesek in Tokyo at wpesek@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net