The last emperor of China was Mao Zedong. One of Deng Xiaoping’s most important achievements after Mao’s death was to rid the system of an all-powerful head, the charismatic figure around which the whole system revolved. The Mandate of Heaven perished in 1976, which is why the pre- and post-Maoist political systems have almost nothing in common despite the fact that they were both nominally communist.

Deng, the architect of China’s Reform and Opening, was powerful, to be sure, but less quixotically so than Mao. So wary was he of the cult of personality, he actively discouraged busts or portraits in his likeness. Jiang Zemin, who emerged as Deng’s successor in the early 1990s, had less power still than Deng. The current leader, the colourless and robotic Hu Jintao, is weaker than all of them. The purge of charisma is complete. Or at least it was until Bo Xilai burst on to the scene.

Post-Mao, China has instead built a meritocratic collective leadership that rules by consensus. That consensus is forged within the nine-member standing committee, which stands at the apex of the system, and the 25-member politburo of which Mr Bo is still a member. Beyond that, there is the wider Communist party, the People’s Liberation Army and various branches of the bureaucracy.

There is even a place, up to a point, for public opinion. The Communist party leadership is highly sensitive to criticism, these days voiced mainly in cyberspace, whether it be related to corruption, pollution, incompetence or inequality. Sometimes it chooses to crush dissent, certainly when it challenges the legitimacy of the party itself. But in other instances – for example, anger over a petrochemical plant in Dalian or a train crash in Wenzhou – it can be surprisingly receptive to public outrage.

Elements of China’s modern state resemble the imperial bureaucratic system that was regulated by means of a meritocratic examination system. In the modern version, Communist party cadres vie for top positions over years, if not decades, as they work their way through some of the country’s most challenging administrative and political positions. Thus Wang Yang, who began his career in a food-processing factory, was able to move through the Communist party youth league and the undoubted excitements of the sports bureau of Anhui province, before gaining a foothold in Anhui’s political hierarchy. Today, several testing jobs later, he is party secretary of Guangdong province and stands on the verge of a nomination to the all-powerful standing committee.

Such a rigorous system can produce highly competent leaders, precisely the people who, for all their faults, have steered the economy through 30 years of spectacular growth. But that technocratic, consensus-driven system is now under strain. The challenge comes from both inside and outside the party.

Mr Bo, until last week party secretary of Chongqing, is the most dramatic manifestation of the challenge from within. That was the reason he had to go. Like Mr Wang, Mr Bo also rose from the bottom ranks of the Communist party hierarchy, despite the fact that he was the “princeling” son of one of the eight immortals of Mao’s revolutionary generation. Mr Bo eventually achieved prominent positions in Dalian, Liaoning and Chongqing, from where he had been plotting his assault on the standing committee.

Mr Bo’s main crime, allegations of brutality and corruption aside, was the fact that much of his power derived not from the party but from his own popularity. With his red songs and populist slogans, he smacked too much of Maoist charisma politics. That came with echoes, in the words of Wen Jiabao, the premier whose speech last week finished Mr Bo off, of the “historic tragedy of the Cultural Revolution”. This is what forced the party to lift what Jon Huntsman, former US ambassador to Beijing, calls the “velvet curtain” and expose the infighting behind the façade of party unanimity.

There are other challenges to the consensus from within the party apparatus, which is too big and too complex always to speak with one voice. In 2010, for example, elements within the system, including former generals, pushed a harder line on the South China Sea. Years of “smile diplomacy”, which had persuaded Asian neighbours of China’s unthreatening rise, were jeopardised and the party spent much of last year trying to repair the damage.

There are also pressures from outside the party. As the urban middle class gets more comfortable, it has begun to campaign on issues from the siting of nuclear power plants to the incompetence of local officials. Even in villages, most notably Wukan in Guangdong province, people have grown more used to challenging party corruption.

These are just some of the pressures that the party faces as it tries to negotiate a once-in-a-decade political transition and a once-in-a-generation economic elision from an investment-led to a consumption-led model. Mr Bo’s great crime was to expose the illusion of party unity in the face of such momentous challenges.

A recent article by Xi Jinping, the man most likely to replace Mr Hu as president, spells out the need for the party to rein in the system. Without naming Mr Bo, Mr Xi urges fellow leaders not to “play to the crowd” or to “seek fame and fortune”. Instead, he says, policy “should be decided according to collective wisdom and strict procedure”. Beyond that, he implies, lies chaos.

Get alerts on China when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article