The political fallout from the case of blind dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng and the demise of a neo-Maoist hardliner may help boost reformists within China’s ruling Communist party, analysts suggest.
But reports that the party’s security chief, Zhou Yongkang, completed a tour of the combustible region of Xinjiang last week has dampened speculation that the conservative veteran is being sidelined.
“One of China’s most conspicuously reform-minded leaders has stepped back into the spotlight after the nation’s biggest political convulsion in a generation, positioning himself to gain from the fall of populist politician Bo Xilai,” Reuters reports:
Wang Yang (right), leader of Guangdong province and well known for his deft handling of recent civil unrest there, is the first of three provincial-level party bosses who stand to benefit after a murder scandal snuffed out Bo’s career last month….. Wang, 57, used his provincial party congress meeting this month to garner publicity ahead of the 18th national Party Congress where, late this year, a new and younger leadership group will be unveiled to replace President Hu Jintao’s team. Wang’s performance at the Guangdong congress highlighted his image as the politician most likely to take up the reformist mantle of outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao, who had seen Bo as a threat to his reform legacy and moved swiftly to cut him down.
“We must get rid of the misconception that the people’s happiness is a gift from the party and government… (and) respect the peoples’ initiative so that the people boldly explore their own path to happiness,” Wang said.
“Wang Yang’s speech was sort of valedictory,” said Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based expert on the Chinese leadership. “People think that he will sort of be the next Wen Jiabao, the standard bearer of the liberals in the new Standing Committee.”
Wang’s reformist credentials were firmly established when he resolved last year’s revolt in the Guangdong village of Wukan without bloodshed, but Shanghai party chief Yu Zhengsheng and Zhang Gaoli, the party leader in the northern port city of Tianjin, are also pushing for reform at local party gatherings.
“These municipal, provincial party congresses, they are platforms for the local party bosses to showcase their policy orientations, their policy thinking. It is a platform for them to impress the center,” said Wang Zhengxu, with the UK-based China Policy Institute.
Mao and his colleagues had a self-confidence born of many factors: triumph in civil war; a well-organized party apparatus; a Marxist-Leninist ideological framework, the road map to a socialist future; and the bulwark of the victorious People’s Liberation Army. Today, more than 60 years after the civil war, only the P.L.A. looks somewhat the same, and the self-confidence is fraying.
The ruling party remains a highly-centralized, hierarchical and unaccountable body:
But the increasingly divided, assertive society formed by 30 years of market reforms has created chances for leaders to appeal to distinctive audiences in the hope of building influence, said Chen Ziming, an independent scholar who studies party politics.
“The central leadership doesn’t have the plan or the will to carry out that kind of exploration, so again reform is coming up from below,” said Chen, a former political prisoner who lives in Beijing. “This shows a broader generational difference, too. They’re showing that they’ll handle things differently,” Chen said of the reformists.
“The party’s insecurity was accentuated by Deng’s rejection (in practice) of Marxism-Leninism. The cloak of ideological legitimacy was abandoned in the race for growth,” he notes. “In the months ahead, party leaders will use every propaganda tool to dissipate the damage inflicted on leadership unity, party discipline and national “harmony” by the Bo debacle. “
Three factors underlying the factional dynamics within the party leadership give it cause for concern, Kenneth Lieberthal, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, tells the Washington Post’s David Ignatius:
– The Chinese leadership is rarely so clearly divided. The party rulers prize consensus and believe that it’s a key factor in maintaining stability. They learned long ago the lesson that if they don’t hang together, they risk all hanging separately. That essential consensus is now in question.
– The Chinese middle class, whose rise has buttressed political stability, appears disgruntled. Social media in China are alive with complaints about product safety, food safety, air quality (described by U.S. officials as “crazy bad”) and widespread corruption. A crucial social force is increasingly disaffected, and the spread of new social media amplifies this discontent.
– The Chinese elite worry about a huge migrant labor force, estimated at 300 million, who mostly live on the margins of the rich coastal cities. They represent a potential source of instability because they are denied full urban status, with its attendant benefits. If there’s one thing China is good at, it’s managing and suppressing internal dissent, so you’d have to bet that Beijing will keep the lid on. But it’s getting harder.
“These problems would be worrying even if the Chinese economy were still in its mega-boom phase. But economic growth is cooling.”
As barefoot lawyer Chen Guangcheng starts his legal training at New York University, rights advocates are expressing concern about the fate of his family members and other dissidents remaining in China, including Chen’s nephew Chen Kegui.
Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid, a rights advocacy group that highlighted Chen’s case, said, “He’s happy to finally have a rest after seven years of suffering, but he’s also worried they will suffer some retribution.”
The authorities have barred Ding Qikui and Si Weijiang, Shanghai-based lawyers Chen’s family entrusted with the case, from taking it up.
“That reminds me of how they persecuted me in 2006,” Chen Guangcheng told the FT in an interview shortly before his departure from Beijing:
Back then, the local government also refused to allow any external lawyers to represent him – a practice at odds with Chinese law – in a case that accused the blind activist of “causing a disturbance” and “destroying property” and ended with a four year jail term.
“That this naked, shameless abuse can still happen again six years later …,” he said. He added that he believed his nephew was tortured to accept the public defender.
In a video message obtained by the FT, a tearful Liu Fang, Chen Kegui’s wife, begged for help for her husband. She is still on the run, and local officials have tried to force lawyers to turn her in to “prove” that the family had chosen them to represent Chen Kegui. Chen Guangfu, Chen Kegui’s father, said in a video posted online that security officials had whipped his hands and stomped on his feet while interrogating him for two days and two nights in late April.
Teng Biao (left), another prominent rights lawyer, was barred from speaking to the media, forced to leave Beijing and told he could only return after Chen’s departure to the US.
Beijing would be eager to blunt the domestic impact of Chen’s departure, said Jerome A. Cohen, a New York University law professor who helped organize Chen’s fellowship.
“The last thing they want,” he said, “is for this deal to symbolize a way out of China for dissidents.”
Besides overseeing security issues, hardliner Zhou Yongkang has other interests in Xinjiang, the New York Times reports:
He has held senior positions in China’s oil industry and still has considerable influence in it; large parts of Xinjiang are being exploited by state-owned enterprises for oil as China’s energy needs grow. One of those companies, the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation, announced in March that it planned to invest more than $8 billion by 2015 to bolster oil and gas production in the region.
Zhou’s tour took place at the same time that the World Uyghur Congress held a five-day gathering in Tokyo. It is unclear whether Mr. Zhou’s travels were timed to coincide with the Uighur gathering, which was sharply criticized by Chinese Foreign Ministry officials and by editors and writers in the Chinese state media. The Uighur forum, which had about 200 attendees, was led by Rebiya Kadeer, a former businesswoman from Xinjiang who is often blamed by China for fomenting unrest in the region.
Xinjiang is a vast region of deserts and snow-capped mountains that borders Central Asian nations, and that is afflicted in parts, especially along a southern belt of oasis towns, by tensions between ethnic Uighurs and ethnic Han, who rule China. In 2009, deadly ethnic riots broke out in Urumqi, the regional capital, and security forces have been on high alert ever since.
Given the history of hostility in the region, Mr. Zhou’s trip appeared to be an affirmation that he still had, at the very least, some control of China’s expanding domestic security apparatus, whose $111 billion budget this year exceeds that of the military by $5 billion.