A split in China's leadership

Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai attends a meeting during the annual National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People on March 6, 2010 in Beijing, China.

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  • Bo's public dismissal reveals fissuresexist in gov't: he was expected to join the Committee that bascially runs #China

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  • It seems Bo’s fall is due less to an ideological war among factions and more to traditional power #politics

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  • Western analysts shouldn't read into the saga of Bo Xilai: little indicates strife among China's leaders @michaelauslin

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China watchers have been digesting the news from last week that Bo Xilai, long considered one of the Communist party’s future stars, was dismissed from his post as party boss of Chonqing, colloquially known as “China’s Chicago,” a sprawling city of nearly 30 million in the southwest of the country. Bo had become symbolic of an old-fashioned, hard-line approach to administration and reform, openly spouting Mao-era songs and slogans. Some in the Western media labeled him a populist, but publicly, this manifested itself in attempts to rally support for tighter government control. The proximate reason for Bo’s dismissal was the apparent attempt by one of his close allies, the vice mayor of Chongqing, to seek asylum in the United States; when this attempt was rebuffed by an American consulate to which he had fled, the official, Wang Lijun, was arrested by Chinese police. In the wake of this incident, China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, began indirectly criticizing Xilai, and from then, the writing was on the wall. This may seem like a bit of inside baseball to those who aren’t steeped in Chinese politics, but the episode is significant, and a rare opportunity to peer behind the veil of the Communist party’s internal workings.

The dismissal of such a senior and well-connected official would be news enough in a regular year. As a son of one of the founders of the People’s Republic, Bo was a charter member of the group known as the “princelings,” whose rise to the heights of power seemed preordained. But this is the year of China’s leadership transition, and Bo, a former Minister of Commerce, was widely expected to be elevated to the Communist party’s Standing Committee — which essentially runs China — later this year. Bo’s fellow princeling Xi Jinping is also in the final months of his assumed ascension to leadership of the Communist party and presidency of China. The spotlight was on Xi earlier this year when he traveled to Washington, D.C., for his inaugural meeting with the Obama administration. As the leadership transition draws near, analysts and pundits have been looking for signs of dissension within the ruling circle, partly as a way to assess the resilience of a regime that is soon to give the reins of power to its fifth generation.

"There is little talk of greater political freedom, and reaction against dissidents and activists remains as quick and brutal as ever." -- Michael Auslin

The public sacking of Bo clearly reveals that such fissures do exist. Granted, the party seems to handle these things better than it did in the old days, when Mao’s heir apparent, Lin Biao, after an apparent coup attempt, died in a mysterious mid-air explosion while trying to flee to Mongolia or Russia. But Bo’s dismissal cuts to the core of both personality politics and competing visions among China’s leaders. At the center of the divergence is the interlinked question of economic liberalization and political openness. China has successfully pursued the former while strictly controlling the latter since the Tiananmen uprising in 1989. Yet two parallel pressures are impinging on the government’s leadership and their efforts to control this dynamic: The first is the rollback in economic liberalization and the corresponding increase in the role of the state-owned sector in China; the second is the continued demand for more political space for China’s citizens, spurred by social media and some of the more abject failings of the party and government (such as the response to last year’s high-speed-rail accident).

Western media like to highlight the difference between Bo’s Mao-inspired approach in Chongqing with that of Wang Yang, party chief of the vibrant southern province of Guangdong. Wang pursued economic liberalization in Guangdong, while Bo favored state-owned enterprises. While Bo whipped up the masses with Mao-era songs, Wang took a decidedly low-key response to protests in the small village of Wukan last year. The “Guangdong model” has made Wang a favorite among those who believe that China can continue to evolve toward a more liberal model of governance. As proof of its effectiveness, they point to the fact that Wang, too, is expected to be made a member of the all-powerful Standing Committee this autumn.

Yet it would seem that Bo’s fall is due less to an open ideological war between reformist and reactionary factions among China’s leadership and more to traditional power politics. With his grandstanding and de facto criticism of their staid leadership, Bo appears to have alienated many powerful members of the current leadership, including party chief Hu Jintao and Premier Wen. Allegations of malfeasance against him are now indicating that vice mayor Wang Lijun’s asylum bid was an attempt to escape from Bo’s reach; apparently, Wang, who was also police chief for Chongqing, may have been investigating Bo’s family for corruption. If true, then Bo was dismissed not because of high-minded theoretical disputes, but for typical political skullduggery. Bo had made himself inconvenient and vulnerable, and his opponents jumped at the chance to rid themselves of a thorn in their side.

Western analysts should not read too much into the saga of Bo Xilai. While it is a fascinating story, and more may come out about corruption and the like, there is little here to indicate that the episode heralds any kind of reckoning among China’s leaders over the future of the country. The party, largely reviled by most of society, remains firmly in power, and has at least implicitly endorsed the growth of the state-owned sector over the past decade. There is little talk of greater political freedom, and reaction against dissidents and activists remains as quick and brutal as ever. Nor does there seem to be disagreement over China’s foreign policy, its support for pariah regimes, and its increasing reliance on military strength to assert its interests in its region.

Perhaps the real question mark hanging over China’s future is one that is entirely absent from the Bo story: After nearly two decades of phenomenal growth in power and influence, what role does China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, see itself playing in Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the Communist party? That is a question that can only become clear in the aftermath to the civilian political transition that, while troubled by Bo’s antics, is still on target for the autumn.

Western analysts should not read too much into the saga of Bo Xilai. While it is a fascinating story, and more may come out about corruption and the like, there is little here to indicate that the episode heralds any kind of reckoning among China’s leaders over the future of the country. The party, largely reviled by most of society, remains firmly in power, and has at least implicitly endorsed the growth of the state-owned sector over the past decade. There is little talk of greater political freedom, and reaction against dissidents and activists remains as quick and brutal as ever. Nor does there seem to be disagreement over China’s foreign policy, its support for pariah regimes, and its increasing reliance on military strength to assert its interests in its region.

Perhaps the real question mark hanging over China’s future is one that is entirely absent from the Bo story: After nearly two decades of phenomenal growth in power and influence, what role does China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, see itself playing in Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the Communist party? That is a question that can only become clear in the aftermath to the civilian political transition that, while troubled by Bo’s antics, is still on target for the autumn.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.

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