Bo Xilai and coming changes in China

Bo Xilai and coming changes in China

In the last couple of days, Western media has been abuzz with rumors sourced from Chinese social media websites, Falun Gong-sponsored news outlets, and analysts in Hong Kong of an attempted coup in Beijing. The only thing lending credence to these rumors is the seeming existence of a power struggle that resulted in the sacking of Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai. This is the most significant removal of a government official since 2006 when Shanghai Party Chief Chen Liangyu was fired during a corruption probe.

The recent string of events have made for exciting political drama, but let’s remember that only nine men in China know what is really going on. This holds true in the case of Bo Xilai and his deputy Wang Lijun, as well as the current status of security chief Zhou Yongkang (some of the recent rumors are swirling around him). Given the uncertain political environment, those nine will not be talking much anytime soon.

While we do not know why Bo was removed and other bits of "Zhongnanhaiology," recent incidents have revealed some useful information about the respective roles of power and ideology in China. And these, in turn, show that change is coming to China, even if we don’t know what that change will look like. 

First, Bo Xilai’s ouster was about power, rather than ideology. From the central leadership’s rhetoric, especially Wen Jiabao’s statements about the need to avoid another Cultural Revolution, one would think that Bo’s fall from grace had mostly to do with his embrace of some form of Maoism. Indeed, it’s a convenient picture for the central leadership to paint for an international audience — that they ousted Bo to prevent China from making a "left turn." While there may be a kernel of truth to this, the "red songs" were more of a means to an end for Bo. Likewise, Bo’s supposed "red ideology" provided Chinese leaders a good pretense to remove a threat to central power. 

Bo was aiming for a place in the Standing Committee to increase his own power. And his real "crime" according to the leadership is not what he did in Chongqing, but how he did it. In executing his dual "sing red strike black" campaigns, Bo established a separate center of power around himself that did not rely on the central leadership. Bo was establishing his own power base and as a result became somewhat of a national sensation (some Chinese citizens were even writing songs about him). His power resulted from his own self-promotion, and not because he was favored by the leadership. He was a populist, but more importantly he was a populist operating as the face of the party and demonstrating a way of governing that was different from the central leadership.     

Second, power is what is propelling Chinese politics during this time of transition. China is now run more like a mafia state with a dozen or so powerful families in charge. Bo’s was one of them. The rules of the game are as such: "If you go after us, then we will go after you." This might be another contributing factor to Bo’s demise. His deputy was allegedly probing Bo’s own family for corruption, and Bo responded by allegedly interfering in the investigation and attempting to sideline his once powerful chief. Unfortunately for Bo, his power struggle with Wang was not as important as Beijing’s struggle with him. The leadership’s longtime reservations about Bo’s political style combined with his sudden vulnerability made for an excellent pretext to "go after" him.

While Bo’s story is about power, it should not obscure the fact that there is an ideological struggle going on inside China. The struggle is a competition of ideas pitting those aligned with Chinese reformers and the "real" Chinese private sector against very powerful state owned enterprises and the party bosses who benefit from them. The former know that Beijing’s growth model will come to an end unless serious capitalist reform is enacted. The latter know that if those reforms are enacted the party (and party) is over for them.

Even more so than the sacking of Bo and the evident tension it is creating, the existence of a struggle over the future of the Chinese economy demonstrates a lack of consensus in China, notwithstanding the intellectual faddishness about the "Beijing Consensus." This intellectual fad — a battle between Beijing’s model of state-led economics and Western liberal economics — is a creation of the West. But the real battle is inside China — will it become more capitalist and grow or will it sputter? 

This lack of consensus shows that while it is impossible to predict what will happen in China (muddling along, collapse, stagnation), one thing is becoming clear — China will change over the next decade. As the economic model comes increasingly into question, other internal problems will come home to roost, including disastrous population policies, widespread corruption at the highest levels of government, and inert political leadership.

As we watch these events unfold, it behooves us to remember that one of the reasons outsiders are paying attention to the idea that there may be a coup in China is that the military is the only institution that can keep the country together. Political crisis in China could pave the way for a PLA-led China. If anything, the downfall of Bo tells us is that the transition in China is not as smooth as it seems. Power struggles are real as party leaders fight over an inverted Golden Rule — in China, he who makes the rules gets the gold. While the particulars of the Bo case are uncertain, two things are clear: The leaders are no longer all powerful and reform is badly needed. The question is, will China make the kind of changes it objectively needs or will it become a stagnating PLA-led state?