The scandal over ousted neo-Maoist Bo Xilai (right) reflects a growing ideological struggle within the ruling Communist party, say analysts. But is Beijing winning the global war of ideas between democracy and authoritarianism, as some observers fear?
Reformers, including allies of Wen Jiabao, are trying to exploit hardliner Bo’s demise by pressing for constitutional and political changes, say officials and party insiders. Some officials fear the reports of the elite’s decadent lifestyles may prompt protests when “unofficial studies now put China’s inequality beyond the point that a former Prime Minister once estimated would trigger social unrest,” as one observer notes.
“The conditions for political and constitutional reform are almost all in place – now is the right time. Wen will push very hard for this and will keep pushing even after his retirement [early next year],” a senior central government official tells the Financial Times:
The suspension of Mr Bo, the former Chongqing party chief and politburo member, from his official posts and the arrest of his wife in connection with the suspected murder of British businessman Neil Heywood has prompted a crisis of legitimacy for the ruling party and exposed deep rifts among the leadership. But it has also strengthened the hand of Mr Wen, who was previously seen as weak and ineffectual in his attempts to promote democratic reforms.
Bo’s downfall has undermined his former allies who also argued loudest against western-style democratic reform and an independent judiciary. These included Zhou Yongkang, China’s security tsar, Wu Bangguo, chairman of the national people’s congress, pLi Changchun, the party propaganda chief and Mr Jiang, who still wields considerable power from behind the scenes.
Elizabeth Economy, a China expert with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said, “I think there’s no doubt that Wen Jiabao is using this particular moment in time to make a last push for his reform agenda, and that encompasses both political reform and economic reform.”
Chinese analysts and overseas experts now agree that Wen has deftly used the scandal surrounding Bo to discredit his alternative governing philosophy in Chongqing. Bo’s methods, known as the “Chongqing model,” included a heavy role for the state, a redistribution of wealth, an emphasis on broad social welfare policies over growth led by the private sector, and, in practice, a heavy-handed authoritarianism, including a crackdown on crime that often trampled on the rule of law.
Bo’s Chongqing model, said Economy, “was clearly antithetical to the approach Wen Jiabao has advocated.”
The scandal has exposed eye-popping levels of corruption within the party elite and amongst their “princeling” offspring, say observers.
“Everyone familiar with the Chinese authoritarian regime, a one-party, closed-box, dark politics will believe Mr. Bo, all these charges and the new facts against him are probably not an exception,” says Xiao Qiang, director of the Berkeley China Internet Project and editor of the online China Digital Times.
He believes reports that the Bo family has secretly transferred $6 billion U.S. worth of funds to overseas banking accounts will harm the party’s reputation and credibility in the run-up to this year’s leadership transition.
“Bo Xilai’s case is a tipping point for the debate over constitutionalism in China. It would be naive to say this will be accomplished in months or even years but this looks like the moment when they will push it,” said Cheng Li, an expert in Chinese elite politics at the Brookings Institution.
“Wen and his reformers have won a battle – but the war is not over yet. If the party wants to save itself it must surrender some of its power and place itself under the constitution.”
“The Bo case may dampen Western analysts’ infatuation with Chinese state capitalism,” writes The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos:
The gap between rich and poor has become so inflammatory and unsustainable that the Chinese government has simply stopped releasing an official measure of the distribution of wealth. (Unofficial studies now put China’s inequality beyond the point that a former Prime Minister once estimated would trigger social unrest.) Bo Xilai made his name channelling Mao’s call for social equity, but Bloomberg has discovered that Gu Kailai’s siblings control businesses worth at least a hundred and twenty-six million dollars.
“And yet Bo Xilai’s most vexing legacy for the Party may be not that he was hated but, rather, that he was loved,” Osnos notes. “His élite peers came to despise him for his Western-style grandstanding, his family’s indiscretion, and his homage to the Cultural Revolution. But disenfranchised citizens hearkened to his rhetoric on behalf of the poor and to his investments in public housing. His exposure threatened the Party’s legitimacy.”
The Bo affair could prompt the party to initiate a more open and meritocratic process for promoting officials.
“If there are differences on how to manage the Bo affair and how to manage the selection of top leaders, they may decide that this is the time to introduce intraparty democracy and allow the central committee to decide who should be promoted into the standing committee of the politburo,” said Susan Shirk, a former US state department official in the Clinton administration.
While the setback for party hardliners may create an opening for reform, there is also a temptation for the party to close ranks and for a conservative backlash.
“The hope, of course, is that Bo’s demise will become a wedge for the political reformers in the party to use to promote greater transparency and perhaps even more elections within the political system. However, there is no guarantee that they will be successful,” says CFR’s Economy:
Moreover, many within the party leadership have to be worried about how the tentacles of corruption are woven through the fabric of their own families and whether the downfall of Bo might lead to demands by the people for further investigations into corruption by the families of senior party leaders. These concerns might well be enough to try to make the case that Bo Xilai is the exception to the rule, and his case should be taken as an example of how well the party can manage its internal affairs.
Other analysts draw the “somewhat counter-intuitive” conclusion that while Bo’s purge “could result in a short-term disruptive power transition,” it may ultimately stabilize the regime by facilitating the reforms proposed by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao:
Premier Wen has also articulated the need for China to transition from an economy overly dependent on exports to one based on domestic consumption. In light of China’s rapidly aging society, and the gradually decreasing amount of cheap labor available for export-oriented factories, most economists agree that these steps are imperative. Bo’s ouster allows the CPC to move forward with such reforms with unanimity - it didn’t help that the export-oriented model is still particularly viable in Chongqing where labor is significantly cheaper – as open dissent in this matter could have led to political fracture and even social unrest.
The revelations of corruption and incompetence at the party’s highest levels are prompting some officials to publicly question the rejection of “Western” democracy.
“It’s true there is a lot of competition between officials on their way up the ranks but until we have elections in this country we cannot be sure that the most capable person is in place at the top,” a senior official aligned with Mr Wen said.
“Why can’t we learn from western democratic systems? After all, Marx was a westerner and Communism comes from the west.”
While the Communist party may be facing ideological turmoil internally, Beijing is on the offensive in the global battle for hearts and minds, says one observer.
“In the war of ideas between freedom and authoritarianism, the Voice of America (VOA) broadcast program is losing to the voice of communist China – not because Beijing’s message is better but because its strategic vision and will to win surpass Washington’s,” writes Joseph A. Bosco, a former Pentagon strategic communications officer and China country desk officer:
The cutbacks in broadcasts to China are particularly ill-advised at a time when the world’s leading authoritarian system is undergoing a leadership transition, with significant contention between reformers and hardliners. Communist Party Premier Wen Jiabao has warned, yet again, that China cannot continue its economic progress without political reform – even as the regime tightens the screws on political dissent.
The crackdown includes strict limits on the amount of American television entertainment programs allowed on Chinese television. President Hu Jintao, once touted as a non-ideological reformer, says the censorship measures are needed to foil a Western scheme of cultural subversion:
“We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration.”
“Straight news and information from VOA and RFA to China, let alone VOA’s promulgation of American values, are completely prohibited, and their broadcasts are routinely jammed – but they still manage to pierce the bamboo curtain,” Bosco writes. “It is mystifying that America would divert resources from the one communications medium that the Communist Party cannot completely or permanently block.”
China Digital Times alerts us to Forbes’ Simon Montlake’s interview with economist Mao Yushi on the need and prospects for political reform in China:
Q: Since economic reform began in 1978, the Communist Party has had a strong record of growth and poverty reduction. Does this provide legitimacy for continued one-party rule?
Mao: No, it’s not enough. The government is under big pressure.… Most people think that political reform is lagging behind. We should first have freedom of speech. I think that is probably the most important [reform]. Only in this environment can people supervise and oversee the government. After freedom of speech [there is] the right to choose the government. In China’s case, the leaders aren’t chosen by the people. They chose themselves, and we have nothing to say. That is a dangerous relationship ….
What is the biggest challenge to the leadership over the next five years?
That would be the clash between vested interest groups and social justice. The law can’t control [these groups]. They have special freedom. They get extra income because of … privilege power. Big state enterprises are vested interest groups. They collude with politicians.
Mao also discusses the surprisingly strong reaction to his iconoclastic essay on Mao Zedong last year. A focal point of the outrage that followed was the leftist Utopia website, where users looked forward to the economist’s “annihilation”. But when Utopia was forced offline following Bo Xilai’s fall from grace, Mao spoke up in its defence. From his Sina Weibo account, on March 28th:
The authorities have shut down Utopia and other sites, but I hope there will still be a chance to reason things out. Although I disagree with the Utopians’ points of view, their right to express them is inalienable. [But] I also hope they will no longer libel people, saying that they’re traitors to China, and urging people to kill them and steal their property. The point of freedom of expression is for one to clearly set out one’s points of view, not to harm others or to vent one’s spleen. These are not desirable social phenomena.
Mao was recently awarded the 2012 Milton Friedman Liberty Prize by the Washington-based Cato Institute, which said that “the arc of his life has been one of well-measured action in the pursuit of liberty.”