The dust hasn’t settled on the dramatic Bo Xilai affair in China. Indeed, it may never fully do so despite a report from Beijing that the Communist Party has decided to suspend him and that his wife is in detention. It is 41 years since a previous shooting star of Chinese politics, Mao’s anointed successor, Lin Biao, died in a plane crash after apparently attempting a coup, and we still do not know exactly what happened.
But amid the rumors of an attempted coup and Politburo divisions, along with the murky death of a British businessman in Bo’s former stronghold, important elements are emerging that are likely to have a significant bearing on the way the last major state ruled by a Communist Party evolves.
This year sees the start of a major transition in China’s political leadership as the Communist Party holds its five-yearly congress (probably in October) to select a new Politburo. At least six of the nine current members of the supreme decision-making body, the Standing Committee, will be replaced because of term limits and/or age.
The dismissal of Bo Xilai as boss of the mega-municipality of Chongqing in western China has been portrayed as a bombshell upsetting that process.
In its immediate way it is. Aiming for the Standing Committee, the media-savvy Bo had become the rock star of Chinese politics with populist grand-standing, top-down statist development, social programs, an anti-crime crusade and the evocation of old values as residents were urged to sing “red songs” and Bo had an eight-story statue of Mao put up in the university district.
So the drama of his fall naturally hit headlines. But it could also produce greater stability at the top as the major factions close ranks.
Bo was out of line with the consensus approach practiced by the outgoing party leader, Hu Jintao. His power base in Chongqing, with its 32 million inhabitants, made him resemble a political version of the regional warlords who ran China in the 1920s. He was a high-flying politician waiting to be shot down, and when he allowed a still-mysterious saga involving Chongqing’s former police chief and the dead Englishman to get out of hand, his fate was sealed.
But the Bo affair is, essentially, a sideshow, a distraction from the essential challenges facing China under its changing leadership. Nobody can deny the country’s huge material achievements, and individuals live far better and freer lives than they did under the Great Helmsman. But the economic model is out of date.
China is gripped by a major environmental crisis and an acute water shortage is building up in the north of the country. Beijing lacks a coherent foreign policy. Corruption is rife. Regulation and safety standards are weak. There is a broad lack of trust in institutions. The falling birth rate and increasing longevity mean that the demographics will shift during this decade so that the People’s Republic may become old before it gets rich.
Materialism has trumped both communism and Confucianism. Tibetan monks and nuns are burning themselves to death to protest Chinese rule, and there are recurrent ethnic clashes in the enormous western territory of Xinjiang.
If political and legal reform are subjects too sensitive to invoke in this one-party state, where dissent is harshly repressed and there has been a recent clampdown on bloggers, economic change is easier. Bo’s fall should embolden advocates of change who have been putting their heads above the parapets this year.
There have been too many false dawns for predictions of change to be as convincing as they should be. But a reformist wind does seem to be blowing, with particular gusts directed at the “vested interests” — the big state-owned enterprises and those who have done well from three decades of growth. One irony of this nominally Communist state is that the expansion under Hu has benefited the forces of capital more than the workers.
There is broad acceptance of the need to rebalance the economy’s excessive dependence on investment in infrastructure and real estate plus exports, moving it toward domestic consumption.
Informed sources in Beijing say Vice Prime Minister Li Keqiang, who is expected to take over as head of government next spring, recognizes the need to breathe fresh life into the market and private enterprise. Li told a conference this month that “reform and opening-up” must “continue to lead the way in removing the institutional obstacles that hamper the shift of the growth model.”
The current prime minister, Wen Jiabao, is firmly on the side of reform. Wang Yang, party secretary of China’s richest province, Guangdong, and Bo’s most vocal critic, has been talking about the need for a new model. A Chinese institute cooperated with the World Bank on a report calling for the reduction of the power of the state sector.
I even found myself pulled into the debate in a minor way when editors at China Daily, the state English-language newspaper, read an advance copy of my new book on China and asked me to write an article arguing the need for change. It ran exactly as written.
The reformers face formidable opposition. Wen and Li may talk of change, but the Communist Party is more powerful than the government, and the once-revolutionary movement has become an agent of the status quo. Interest groups are strong. State enterprises exercise monopolies or oligopolies entwined with the political system. Rule by consensus impedes adoption of tough measures.
How this process evolves will determine whether China finds a new future for itself or gets caught in the fallout of its own success. Given its place in the world, the outcome has major implications for the rest of the globe. If Bo’s fall has helped to open the door to change, it will have done some good.
Jonathan Fenby, former editor of The Observer and The South China Morning Post, heads the China team for the research service Trusted Sources. His latest book, about China, is Tiger Head, Snake Tails.