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March 18, 2012 7:36 pm
It was not supposed to end this way. Until recently, the leadership succession of the Chinese Communist party was thought to be on track. Vice-President Xi Jinping and executive vice-premier Li Keqiang will become the general secretary of the CCP and the premier of the State Council (China’s cabinet), respectively. The Politburo standing committee, the party’s supreme policy-making body, will add seven other new members. One of them was to be Mr Bo Xilai, the party chief of Chongqing.
The surprising announcement last week of Mr Bo’s ousting upended his highly publicised quest for a seat on the Politburo standing committee. His ignominious exit from power drew loud cheers from many quarters. Liberals applauded Mr Bo’s demise because his “singing red” campaign, which featured mass singing of songs popular during Mao Zedong’s rule, brought back memories of ultra-leftist madness. Cautious and uptight officials heaved a sigh of relief. They abhorred Mr Bo because he was a cynical self-promoter who broke the party’s taboo against publicly campaigning for one of the highest offices in the land. Mr Bo frightened them because he was rather good at playing a different game: instead of quietly and humbly working the corridors of the party establishment, he built up a charismatic public image and forced the party’s hand. Private entrepreneurs celebrated Mr Bo’s downfall too, because they felt deeply threatened by his populist rhetoric and by the use of questionable legal methods in the seizure of the assets of businessmen during Chongqing’s high-profile crackdown on organised crime.
Given the controversy surrounding Mr Bo’s thinly disguised political ambition and unorthodox tactics, it is easy to treat his fall as political morality play. That would be a mistake. What this episode has revealed is far more important than the political folly of one individual, however unpleasant he might be.
For the party, Mr Bo the political entrepreneur may be gone, but the trouble caused by his rise and departure is far from over. For one thing, the Bo incident has revealed the deep rift within China’s top leadership over the distribution of power and the future direction of the party. By openly challenging the party’s long-established rules on personnel promotion, Mr Bo showed that he – and many others in the party’s hierarchy – will no longer abide by such rules, which they view as biased in favour of risk-averse and colourless bureaucrats. For the moment, the party establishment has won a decisive battle against such insurgents. But the existing system of distributing power among rival factions through an opaque arrangement is sure to antagonise ambitious and risk-taking players such as Mr Bo in the future when they feel they are short-changed by the system. Should such resentments intensify, the cherished elite unity, the glue that has held the party together since the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, would be eroded, endangering the party’s survival.
That Mr Bo could easily galvanise public opinion with his leftist populist rhetoric and antics should give the party another cause for concern. Chinese leaders have long thought they had banished the ghost of Mao, the only communist leader capable of rallying the masses to terrorise the party. Mr Bo’s remarkably effective campaign to tap into popular resentment at inequality and corruption suggests that, as long as the party’s policies perpetuate crony capitalism, future political entrepreneurs in his mode will come along and exploit widespread social discontent to further their personal ambitions. If anything, the most important lesson to be learnt by the party is not how to prevent the rise of another Mao-like figure, but that it must address the underlying socioeconomic conditions that brew leftist-populist radicalism. In practice, this requires undertaking liberal economic and political reforms to make China a more just and democratic society.
The only silver lining in this whole drama is that Chinese society has shown its maturity and asserted its influence. If it could, the party would have kept its dirty linen safely hidden inside the closet. But in the age of the information revolution and of unprecedented public vigilance, it no longer can. Even before the attempted defection of Wang Lijun, Mr Bo’s police chief and right-hand man in Chongqing, in early February, the Chinese media were engaged in a spirited debate on Mr Bo’s much-hyped “Chongqing model”. Many liberal voices questioned its achievements, legitimacy, and sustainability. When Mr Wang briefly sought asylum in the American consulate in Chengdu a month ago, public sentiment against Mr Bo exploded in cyberspace. Ordinary Chinese citizens were justifiably indignant that one of their top officials (Mr Wang had vice-ministerial rank) could perpetrate such a treasonous act. They were even more outraged that, 35 years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, political intrigue reminiscent of the infamous Lin Biao affair (when Mao’s designated successor tried to flee to the Soviet Union in 1971) could again dominate the national conversation and that they had little say in choosing their rulers.
In this perfect political storm, Mr Bo’s fate was sealed. The question now is whether the party can turn this debacle into an opportunity for change.
The writer is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College
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