The fallout from the dismissal of Bo Xilai (left), a rising star in China’s ruling Communist Party, “could potentially provoke a challenge to the entire political system,” says a leading analyst.
Bo’s downfall ”is probably the most important political event in China in more than two decade,” says one observer, “but it does not mean the end of bitter factional battles as the country prepares for a once in a decade leadership transition this year.”
The affair demonstrates that “the most important election in the world this year is not taking place in the US, but in China,” says another.
“With Bo gone, attention will be focusing in coming months on Wang Yang, a dynamic and apparently reform-minded member of the Communist Youth League faction who was until recently seen as Bo’s chief rival for promotion.”
“Bo Xilai is absolutely the most significant political figure to be purged since Zhao Ziyang in 1989 and in terms of impact, this event is potentially equal to what happened at that time,” says Cheng Li, an expert in elite Chinese politics at Washington’s Brookings Institution.
“President Hu [Jintao] and Premier Wen [Jiabao] have to think very carefully about their next move because whatever they do could potentially provoke a challenge to the entire political system,” he said:
If Mr Bo is accused of relatively trivial charges, such as dereliction of duty for promoting Mr Wang, then he may still have a chance to agitate and rally support against his political enemies. As the well-connected “princeling” son of a revolutionary hero Mr Bo retains close ties and loyalties within the People’s Liberation Army as well as the party hierarchy.
But if he is accused of very serious crimes such as corruption or political assassination then it could provoke a backlash among his powerful supporters and the general populace who have often welcomed his widely publicised political campaigns.
The inner-party factional struggle to determine China’s trajectory is centered on the problem of balancing political control and economic openness. The country’s future economic growth and political stability can only be secured by addressing popular “demand for better governance and greater opportunities for participation in public policy debate and implementation,” said a recent World Bank report.
Despite Bo’s demise, it has yet to be seen who wins “the struggle over who gets to shape China’s future,” writes Beijing-based analyst Russell Leigh Moses:
Bo’s dismissal doesn’t strengthen the reformers on the Right. The Left is reeling, but the Right should not celebrate. Cadres remain accountable to the Party, but not to citizens. Netizens can scribble and post, but they are as much sidelined as Bo has now been. Bo’s removal is not an endorsement of their agenda, but a repudiation of his.
The apparent fall of the once-resurgent neo-Maoist followed renewed calls for political reform from outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao, but reform does not necessarily entail democratization, analysts suggest.
“This administration, though with Wen calling for reforms from time to time, has replaced political reform with governance reform, by adjusting ministries, attempt to reduce government payrolls, restricting government expense, and so on, none seems successful,” says Wu Zuolai, a researcher at the Chinese National Academy of Arts, echoing the thoughts of many academics. “There has been a setback in this regime’s concept for reform and political reform that has deliberately confused people.”
Coming at a highly sensitive time of leadership transition, “Bo’s removal is a useful reminder that China’s political system is not the well-oiled machine it is sometimes made out to be,” writes David Pilling:
Like the production of laws and sausages, the inside of China’s one-party state is not pretty. Normally it is hidden from view. But the savage factionalism within the party becomes visible at times of generational change when one standing committee cedes power to the next, as will happen this autumn……Indeed, only once since the communist revolution of 1949 has there been anything approaching a smoothly executed transition.
The ruling party’s factional struggles reflect fierce disputes over how the ruling elite should confront a strategic dilemma.
The key question is, according to Beijing University economics professor Xia Yeliang: “Without political reform, how can economic reform be furthered?”
“The government has slid into exhaustion of momentum, and is running by inertia. The central leadership lacks the resolution, courage and wisdom to change, nor does it have the capacity to make use of outside wisdom.”
Relatively liberal reformists have locked horns with party conservatives over the issue of political reform, but Bo’s downfall is not necessarily an indication that the former have triumphed.
“Bo’s demise has given hope to the liberals but the internal politics of the Party are far more complex than that and the factional wars will continue into the northern summer when the next group of leaders is finally settled,” writes The Australian’s Michael Sainsbury.
“For China, democracy begins at home, and that means within the party, giving its 80 million members choice rather than having leaders imposed from above.”
The ruling Communist Party needs to correct an imbalance in its longstanding commitment to classical Leninist democratic centralism, inner-party reformers argue.
“With regard to China’s democratic centralism, I believe democracy is too weak, and centralisation too strong. We should unify the two,” Hu Deping, the son of one-time party chief Hu Yaobang, writes in this week’s edition of Caixin, China’s most influential liberal journal.
“The question of internal party democratisation is one of the most important issues facing the party,” he concludes.
Human rights and democracy advocates will welcome the demise of a party boss known for his harsh intolerance of dissent:
Jiang Weiping, a veteran journalist now based in Toronto, was sentenced on Mr Bo’s orders to eight years in prison in 2001 for writing three critical articles in a Hong Kong magazine.
“As a journalist who has battled Bo Xilai for two decades I feel pleased with [his downfall] and relieved for China’s future,” Jiang told the Financial Times on Thursday.
Practitioners of Falun Gong say Mr Bo presided over one of the harshest crackdowns on the banned religious sect in Dalian and have filed lawsuits against him in more than 10 countries, alleging torture and crimes against humanity.
Bo’s ouster offers important lessons, writes Wenran Jiang, a political science professor at the University of Alberta and a senior fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada:
First, that there are still very few rules in the non-transparent world of Chinese politics. … For the first time, the new party boss will not have been appointed by a paramount leader from the elder founders of the People’s Republic. There is no playbook – for China, this is just the second institutionalized power transition in more than 100 years.
Second, that Western coverage of Chinese politics has been consumed by elites – a narrow focus on internal power struggles and factions, often reduced to a horse race. This misses the bigger picture of the challenges facing modern China: growing inequality, rampant corruption and the difficult transition to a new development model, among others. ……
“Bo is down personally, but his initiatives and style, controversial as they are, have a huge following,” he notes. “The test for China’s leadership is how to move the political reform agenda forward, beyond the rhetoric.”
The party’s neo-Maoist, populist Left could yet make a comeback, warns Moses, a Beijing-based professor who is writing a book on the changing role of power in Chinese politics.
“If economic performance starts to decline faster, the Left can argue that the best way to social justice is through charismatic leaders and mass action—and affording Bo Xilai the chance to emerge from the rubble.”