Political turmoil in China

Bo Xilai. Photo: 美国之音 张楠 (Voice of America – Zhang Nan). Wikimedia commonsIt could be claimed that the process of leadership turnover in China is characterized by a lack of transparency, although due to the formalities surrounding the shift of leaders, it has been known for a long time that Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will succeed Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao as president and prime minister in the end of 2012. However, other posts are to be filled as well, and with the recent ousting of Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, the image of a smooth and united rule in China is beginning to crack.

Since the fall of Bo Xilai has developed into what could be the gravest political crisis since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, it is of outmost importance to the Chinese regime to publicly project an image of unity. According to Dr Kerry Brown at the Europe China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN), the leaders in Beijing want the upcoming leadership change to be smooth, predictable and ”boring”, in order to guarantee the legitimacy of the next generation of leaders, and a continuation of policy. The fall of Bo Xilai constitutes a sharp diviation from this ideal course of action, for the first time since 1989 revealing an intraparty leadership struggle.

Bo’s dismissal is believed to be the result of several factors. Although until recently one of the most important politicians in China and a favorite to obtain one of the posts at the Standing Committee of the Politbureau (the most influential political organ in China), Bo Xilai has always been perceived as very controversial. His brutal campaign against the local mafia has rendered him popular with the people but got him some powerful enemies. By revoking Cultural Revolution memories and singing Maoist ”Red Songs”, Bo may have strayed too much left of the party line, thus damaging the perfect facade of unanimity that the CCP leadership for decades has taken great pains to maintain. However, what many believe to be the final tipping point was when Wang Lijun, police chief and close collaborator in the anti-mafia campaigns, fled to the American consulate and applied for political asylum. Perhaps this would have been overlooked if Bo had not already been seen as a problem in the eyes of the leaders in Beijing.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Photo: Doug Kanter . wikimedia commonsBo’s dismissal due to ”serious insubordination” was preceded a day earlier by prime minister Wen Jiabao expressing the concern that without political reform China might suffer another tragedy like the Cultural Revolution. The conservative party line, such as Bo’s glorifying of the Cultural Revolution, seems to have lost their cause. In the end the more liberal groups of the party won the fight, as expressed in Wen Jiabao’s speech. It is, however, a difficult judgment to make, since the transparency in the party is lacking, as mentioned above, as well as the remaining leading politicians in no means being ideologically homogenous

In other words, it is difficult to understand the Chinese political process since it is marked by its autocratic system, and hence, concealed from the public. But when Bo Xilai was removed from office in March, the world could suddenly get a glimpse of the hidden mechanisms within. It is not possible to claim that the fall of far-left conservative Bo should be a victory for the liberal and reformist faction of the party; it does, however, mark a change in how the Chinese leaders can rule and manipulate the flow of information.

Throughout Chinese history, rarely have the leading politicians bothered to explain themselves for the media and public, and the country is still characterized by a largely non-transparent government due to its undemocratic rule. But ever since the turmoil started earlier this year with the ousting of Bo Xilai, the party has felt forced to inform the public of what has been going on. If they don’t, micro-blogs and Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter) will soon tell the truth in any way, as well as the inevitable spreading of rumours,. This is a lesson learned after the attempt to conceal a serious train crash killing several people last year, which was still revealed by numerous micro-blogs and other online writings. 

Hence, the leader change in China, with all probablility, will be carried out as planned. But the turmoil around Bo Xilai has still let the outside world get a glimpse of a party not so unified as they want it to be seen.


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