Two incidents, one regarding Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, and the other involving a blind human rights activist and self-taught lawyer Chen Guangchen, destroyed the myth that the Chinese system is a well oiled machine. Policy, individual, and bitter factional rivalries are kept sealed from the public to ensure the Party’s inviolability. This is the biggest political quake the country has experienced since the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. The new age of social communication, the internet, has also damaged the Party’s secrecy. Even people inside the party are twiting inside information.
The Bo Xilai case demonstrates that there still exists a privileged class who wield disproportionate influence much like in countries where feudalism remains in an unstated form. This clan is known as “princelings” or children of revolutionary leaders. That does not mean that all princelings think the same way. In fact, there are wide differences among some of them.
Bo Xilai was one of the fast rising princelings. He was a member of the powerful 24-member Politburo of the Party. He was also the Party Chief of the Chongqing Municipality which gave him a rank above Provincial party Chiefs. He was the son of revolutionary leader Bo Yibo, one of China’s “eight immortals”. He was also a front runner to be elevated to the all powerful 9-member Standing Committee of the Politburo in the leadership change at the 18th Party Congress in autumn this year. Bo’s Chongqing model of development was widely publicised across the country. Many top central leaders visited Chongqing. In fact, Bo projected his model as an alternative to the central model. As Bo Xilai fell from grace last March on charges of corruption, detained by the law enforcing authorities, removed from all posts, the dirt inside the Chongqing Empire began to unravel.
Following the end of the disastrous Cultural Revolution in 1976, Mao Zedong’s death and the destruction of the ultra leftist ‘Gang of Four’, pre-eminent leader Deng Xiaoping, who survived three purges by Mao, set out to establish a system of collegial leadership, bury Cultural Revolution politics for ever, and set China on the path of reform and development. But Chongqing under Bo Xilai took a different path. His much hyped anti-corruption drive was a ruthless campaign against businessmen and the mafia who did not toe his line. He became personally corrupt. He planned to have his police chief Wang Lijun eliminated. Wang escaped to the US consulate in Chengdu where he was denied asylum. He is also under custody. Wang’s fault was he confronted Bo with evidence of corruption by his family members.
Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai is currently in custody for allegedly killing a business partner, Neil Heywood, a British citizen, last year. A serious loss of face for China when a politburo member’s wife indulges in homicide and that, too, of a foreigner.
What irked some in the top leadership most was Bo’s unbridled ambition. He revived Cultural Revolution type of ideological politics and culture in Chongqing. He brought in the “Red Songs’ and ‘Red Theatres’ of the ultra leftists, a taboo subject in China. He started building a personality cult emblazoning his name in the city centre. His word became law. Finally, he was discovered tapping telephone conversations of senior leaders including that of Party General Secretary and President Hu Jintao.
In addition, leaders in the centre were quietly watching Bo’s interaction with senior army officers. His links to the army go back to his father who formed the 14th Group Army in Chengdu during the liberation war years. Civilians are discouraged from interacting with the army except on ceremonious occasions. But Bo visited them and interacted with them very frequently.
Bo is reported to have criticised the central leadership, especially the politburo members, as incompetent. His two close army associates, Gen. Liu Yuan and Gen. Zhang Haiyang, were reportedly in tune with Bo in such issues. Both Liu and Zhang are princelings and contemporaries. Liu is the son of China’s first President Liu Shaoqi who died in prison during the Cultural Revolution. Even Bo’s father was sent to a labour camp during that period. But he was no liberal either.
Following the Cultural Revolution the Party has been trying to stop ‘mountain warlordism’, that is, factional loyalties. Deng was instrumental in reducing Military Regions from eleven to seven, and transfer of army leaders routinely to prevent them from forming personal fiefdoms.
Bo’s relationship with sections in the army along with his other acts and views unnerved the central leadership. The question was whether Bo was planning a coup. Both Liu and Zhang have been questioned about their relations with Bo. Their careers are in jeopardy.
One questionable character in the bizarre drama is that of Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang. Sixteen retired party officials of the region have written an open letter to the leadership calling for the removal of Zhou Yongkang and top propaganda official Liu Yunshan.
Zhou Yongkang, the powerful security czar of China was reported to have opposed Bo’s dismissal. He was also one of those top leaders who visited Chongqing and praised Bo and his model highly. Even former Party Chief Jiang Zemin was reported to have supported Bo, but agreed to his dismissal when evidence of Bo’s misdeeds were presented to him.
There were reports initially that Zhou had also been relieved of his posts. But recently, he has been in the media highlights visiting Xinjiang and giving speeches.
This has raised serious questions about the party. How strong is the support for Zhou inside the party? Or has the party take a decision to stop at Bo Xilai and handle his damage before the Party Congress, than open another major incident further to damage the Party’s standing. As a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, Zhou is no light weight. Even if there has been a compromise, another question arises. Is there a substantial number in the Politburo and the Central Committee who favour conservative politics with a certain amount of Maoist nationalistic idealism instead of political reform?
Last year, there was an initial enthusiasm about celebrating the centenary of the 1911 democratic revolution led by Dr. Sun Yatsen. That fizzled out as the year went by. The Communist Youth League had to cancel a seminar it planned for the centenary celebrations. Instead, visits were organized to revolutionary bases.
Many Chinese scholars have been dismayed by the Party’s decision to close all research on the Cultural Revolution. True, whatever has been written by close witnesses’ shows Mao Zedong in bad light and the disaster the campaign caused to the country as unacceptable? Mao has been judged as 70% good and 30 % bad. Mao is still the national icon. Will further negative exposure of Mao hurt the party?
The China Youth Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Youth League, has a different view on the Cultural Revolution. In a recent commentary it said that the closure of any discussions on the Cultural Revolution and a few lines about it in text books were giving the youth a positive appreciation of disastrous movement. Basically it called for a review and open debate on the subject. Will that happen eventually? The CYL is not an ordinary organization. It is an institution for shaping future leaders of China. Hu Jintao is a product of the CYL and so are many other upcoming leaders. Can they make a difference eventually? The putative premier of China, Li Keqian is also a CYL product. Hu wanted Li to be his successor but the Shanghai clique outmaneuvered him.
The case of Chen Guangchen, the blind activist, comes to play here. Chen is an oppositive of Bo Xilai. Born blind in a poor family, he is a self-taught lawyer who, despite his handicaps, fought against the system especially forced abortions of woman. He managed to escape his heavily guarded house to travel hundreds of miles with the help of other activists to take asylum in the US embassy in Beijing last month. He was handed over to the Chinese authorities after six days on certain conditions, and is in the USA now with Chinese government permission with his wife and two children.
Chen’s escape is another puzzle. For someone with his disabilities, it is a miracle, were there some among his guards who helped him? And why did the Chinese authorities allow him to leave for the US? It was a political decision.
China, today, is a moving scenario. There is an ideological struggle. How will the new leadership deal with these issues? Will they dare to break the established political lines? These are big questions. There are too many vested interests to ensure political reforms remain only within the ambit of restructuring. That means the party’s conservative command remains in tact. The problem with China is that they have no conception for an alternative to the Communist Party’s rule. The leadership fears chaos and break up of the country if the party collapses. Can there be a change even within the one party rule? The 18th Party Congress will show.
(The writer, Mr.Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi; Email:email@example.com)