Home .Governing globalization Is China cracking?
Is China cracking?
Saturday, 21 April 2012 18:29

Could China's mega-scandal involving former rising star BO Xilai be a sign that the edifice of the Chinese Communist Party is finally cracking?

China has arrived at that level of development where non-democratic countries typically become democratic, and there are many signs of pressures in that direction.

Rapidly developing non-democratic countries often make a transition towards democracy when their GDP per capita is around $4000 a year. China's GDP per capita is already at that level, and has moved ahead of that of Korea in 1987 when it had its first democratic presidential election.

What pushes a country towards democracy?  As development progresses, so usually does a country's level of education.  And a more educated public would typically prefer to have a say in the choice of its own government.  Also, as countries develop, their societies usually become more complex and diversified, and therefore less easy to control through authoritarianism.  Political scientists often point to the cases of Korea and Taiwan as being countries that have made such a natural transition to democracy.

Another driver towards democracy in China could be popular dissatisfaction with the immense corruption of the Chinese Communist Party. President HU Jintao and Premier WEN Jiabao are forever highlighting the risk that corruption presents to the Party.

The Party has evolved greatly over the decades, and the days of great leaders like Mao and Deng have long gone.  It has splintered into two main factions (one led by President HU Jintao and Premier WEN Jiabao, and the other led by former President Jiang Zemin) and is characterized by intense infighting. Successful leadership today means balancing the interests of the factions and being people of compromise rather than real leaders.  This has made the Party more vulnerability to disunity.

All these factors have contributed to democratization pressures in China over the decades.  In recent times, democratic movements have included the Beijing Spring of 1978, and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.  Chinese democracy movements subsequently went into decline as the Party clamped down.

But more recently there has been a growing long list of protests in China from academics, writers, artists and journalists, some of whom are in jail, under house arrest or in exile overseas.  Then there is the vast, scattered array of protests by peasants against land grabs and local corruption, and by workers against the failure to be paid or human rights abuses.

Now the blogosphere is rife with protests.  And while the government tries control Internet freedom, it is in reality always playing catchup.

Perhaps more importantly, many members of China's Communist Party elite are expressing a lack of confidence in the regime's future as they link up with countries like Australia, Canada and the US by acquiring permanent residence status, and buying real estate, and sending their children to study in these countries.  Capital flight from China is now rising dramatically.

It is in the context of this hotbed of instability that the recent events involving BO Xilai have occurred.

Although we may never know the full truth, it is useful to review the basic facts of the case.

Bo is "princeling", being the son of Bo Yibo, who was a finance minister under Mao.  The charismatic and ambitious Bo has had a star-studded career with postings as governor of Liaoning province, Minister of Commerce, and finally Party chief of the boom inland city of Chongqing.  His wife, Gu Kailai, was one of China's most successful lawyers.  His son Bo Guagua made the headlines with his party boy lifestyle and his penchant for fast cars (he owns a Ferrari) while studying in England (Harrow and Oxford) and the US (Harvard).

In Chongqing, Bo led a highly public campaign against organized crime, despite the massive corruption of his own family.  This involved illegally detaining, torturing and imprisoning many innocent businessmen.  It was like a second Cultural Revolution in Chongqing.  He also launched a public spending spree on social housing, tree planting, and luring industry, and espoused Maoist policies, thereby appealing to public opinion, but challenging Beijing's neo-liberal orthodoxy.  Moreover, BO was working intensely to undermine President Hu Jintao, Premier WEN Jiabao, and likely future President Xi Jinping, with the hope that the rival faction could take over the Chinese leadership with him BO as President.

Bo's wife was working with British businessman Neil Heywood, shifting money overseas where she and her family have a vast network of business interests.  But when she asked him to transfer overseas a very large amount of state assets (reportedly $1.5 billion), he asked for a larger cut than usual and threatened to expose her plan.  Feeling betrayed she reportedly killed him by poisoning a drink with cyanide compound.  This scandal became public when Bo's former police chief Wang Lijun fled to the US consulate in Chengdu, fearing his life after falling out with Bo, with information about the murder.

Bo who had been lobbying hard for promotion to the Communist Party's elite nine-man Politburo Standing Committee, has now been stripped of all of his Party positions for breaking party discipline.  His wife has now been arrested for murder.

The story of Bo shows what Chinese governance can be like on the ground where local Party bosses run their towns and villages like personal fiefdoms.  Moreover, it highlights the immensity of factional infighting and corruption in China.

The Chinese propaganda machine is now firing its full arsenal at BO, the man who used the media so much to cultivate his own image, in the greatest media mobilization since Tiananmen Square.

At the moment, the Party is closing ranks and focusing on damage limitation.  As the Party tries to project its image of unity and solidarity one can't help but recall that Shakespeare once said, "I think the lady doth protest too much".  Times like the present, when the leadership is changing, are vulnerable to instability as people fight for positions and influence, like a democracy behind closed doors.

It is just a matter of time before further cracks appear in the Communist Party edifice.  It is too big, complex, divided and corrupt to be controllable. And as is evident in the blogosphere, information about the Communist Party shenanigans can no longer be hidden from the Chinese people who are furious at the goings-on.

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