By Michael Tsai
Just less than one year ago, Bo Xilai was a shining example of a successful Chinese politician. As the Communist Party Secretary of the city of Chongqing, an inland economic powerhouse in western China, Bo had accomplished great feats over his five years in office that even his peers in government would have been envious of. Bo’s “Chongqing Model” emphasized reform, initiating a large-scale citywide crackdown on organized crime and giving incentives for corporate investments with tax breaks. These programs yielded tangible results—Chongqing became the standard of efficient public safety management, and electronics manufacturers poured into the region, creating thousands of jobs. Most importantly, the people of Chongqing adored their charismatic leader.
Much has changed since those days. On February 6, 2012, in a dramatic series of events, former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun met with officials at the American consulate in Chengdu and allegedly presented information regarding corruption within the Chinese government, implicating Bo Xilai in particular. A tense 24 hours followed in which Wang was rumored to be seeking asylum in the United States.
Apprehension over the incident’s implications on US-China relations were eased when the US consulate released Wang after one day. Since then, Bo has been publicly disgraced, rebuked and removed from power. In mid-March, Bo was chastised by Premier Wen Jiabao in a press conference and taken out of office a day later, but not before being given an opportunity to speak at his own press conference. As of today, Bo and his wife have been detained with evidence connecting the couple to the homicide of family friend and British businessman Neil Heywood in a complex web of political interests.
The Wang Lijun incident and its fallout granted the world unprecedented, albeit minimal, insight into the black box that is China’s leadership. Three important lessons can be learned from the outcome of this rare Chinese political debacle:
First, recognizing historical outcome and the need to maintain its legitimacy of rule in the 21st century, the Communist Party of China (CPC) continues to distance itself from founder Mao Zedong’s legacy and Maoist ideologies. Any element that proves to be an obstacle to the CPC’s bid to appear more progressive will be eliminated. During his tenure as Party Secretary of Chongqing, Bo Xilai instituted a revival of Maoist ideologies by erecting new statues of Mao, promoting the teaching of “red” propaganda in schools, and advocating for reforms that would reduce the gap between socioeconomic classes. These include programs that send students to work in rural areas, eerily alluding to Mao’s “Down to the Countryside” campaigns. These policies were not received well in Beijing, especially by the economically progressive Wen Jiabao.
Second, the foremost priority for the Communist Party is a public image of unity. In what was the most significant split in the Chinese leadership since Tienanmen Square, the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, the highest policy organ in China, has swiftly moved to purge those who deviate from the current party orthodoxy. Corruption allegations aside, Bo’s popularity and his Maoist cultural revival presented a threat to harmony within the CPC and the hegemony it asserts over the nation.
Finally, the black box is slowly becoming less obscure. Granting a disgraced public official a chance to speak to the media before being removed from office was a first in Chinese politics. A primary characteristic of democratic governments is transparency, and this small step towards transparency could carry much more significance in the long run regarding the possibility of democracy in China.
China will face a leadership transition later this year, as many members of the Politburo Standing Committee, including Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao, are ending their terms in office. Xi Jinping, the current Vice President of China, is expected to inherit the Presidency. He would bring to the office many more personal connections with the West than his predecessor, which could affect how he addresses pressure from the United States and its allies regarding issues such as human rights and environmental degradation. Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond, a world-renowned researcher in democracy, is a proponent of the modernization theory in this case: as wealth and institutions change, the Chinese public will start to question authority, demand information, and seek autonomy. Diamond argues that the only basis of the current political legitimacy of the CPC is continuously improving living standards. However, even if GDP growth slows, China will most likely reach a per capita income level of $13,000 by the end of the decade – the same level as Hungary when the European nation made its democratic transition in 1990. Considering increasingly progressive political institutions and an expanding upper-middle class, the future of democracy in China seems hopeful.
These are nervous but exciting times for China. This generation may be the first to witness a major political transformation. However, significant reform should not be expected in the short run. Hu and Wen will ensure that the next generation of leadership continues to adhere to party orthodoxy in instituting piecemeal reform and growing China’s influence on the international stage. For now, maintaining unity remains the number one priority within China’s leadership, not transparency, human rights, nor the question of democracy. The last thing that the CPC needs right now is another public division of opinion among the leadership, which could seriously undermine the legitimacy of the Party’s rule.
Courtesy of Thierry Ehrmann