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China's Leadership Shift in Disarray

Interviewee: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
April 19, 2012

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The sudden suspension of Communist Party Politburo member Bo Xilai amid accusations of corruption and his wife's link to the possible murder of a British businessman "have ensured that there is no orderly power transition" this fall as the party had planned, says Elizabeth C. Economy, a top China expert for CFR. She says that "these events have unmasked what people in and outside China have long discussed: the truly extraordinary level of corruption that pervades the country's political system and the belief of some Chinese officials that the law does not apply to them."

Economy says that the party is suffering from inner dissension, and "will have to be more transparent than ever before in presenting the case against Bo and his family to ensure that the Chinese people do not believe this is simply power politics at play."

Until recently, everyone was expecting a rather routine political transfer of power this fall, when president and Communist Party chief Hu Jintao is expected to turn over power to Xi Jinping. But now with the dramatic disgrace of Bo Xilai, a vibrant Politburo member and leader of the Chongqing region, the question arises of whether Bo's downfall is going to set back the party's hopes for an orderly transfer of power.

Corruption ranks at the top of the Chinese people's concerns about their government and society.

Bo's downfall, the sordid details emerging around his wife's apparent complicity in the death of British businessman Neil Heywood, and the vast wealth amassed by members of his extended family have ensured that there is no orderly power transition. In just the final year of the transition, Bo has thrown the process into disarray. Not only is he--one of the top candidates for the topmost leadership body, the Standing Committee of the Politburo--disgraced, but also, these events have unmasked what people in and outside China have long discussed: the truly extraordinary level of corruption that pervades the country's political system and the belief of some Chinese officials that the law does not apply to them.

From everything we hear, Bo is not your usual Chinese politician. He was the son of one of Mao Zedong's top aides, Bo Yibo, and was reportedly energetically trying to shake things up in Chongqing, cracking down on crime, and trying to restore a kind of return to the Cultural Revolution days. Was he suspended from power because of the party leadership's concerns about stability?

At this point, it seems likely that Bo was involved in any one of a number of infractions, including perhaps covering up murder. I don't think, therefore, that he was ousted because of politics and personality. However, he was clearly a divisive figure--charismatic and opportunistic. He drew an enormous amount of attention to himself in a leadership that appears to pride itself on being colorless and faceless. His policies, and even more so his policy approach, which had elements of Maoist revivalism in mass campaigns and "red songs," were also nothing like the overall policy approach pursued by other leaders. For some Chinese leaders, such as Premier Wen Jiabao, Bo was clearly a polarizing rather than unifying figure. His crimes provided an opportunity for those in the leadership who didn't want to see him promoted but purged instead.

This is clearly the most dramatic event surrounding the Chinese Communist Party since the Tiananmen Square events in 1989. Are the current leaders fearful of dissension within party ranks?

There is already dissension within the party ranks. Within Chongqing, for example, many people apparently still support Bo. They appreciate what he did for the city--his enormous success in attracting foreign investment, the very rapid economic growth, the anti-corruption drive, and his efforts to spread the wealth around to those who had not benefited as much from the economic reforms. His policies also appealed to the neo-leftists in the party, and they have been vociferous in their support of him, even as their websites have been closed.

In fact, the party's clampdown on the Internet earlier this month (banning the ability to comment on others' posts for several days) and continued restrictions on various words suggest just how concerned the party is about political blowback from Bo. The party will have to be more transparent than ever before in presenting the case against Bo and his family to ensure that the Chinese people do not believe this is simply power politics at play.

Some observers have compared Bo's political downfall to the still unexplained death of Lin Biao, Mao's trusted defense minister, who died in a plane crash, purportedly fleeing China after an abortive coup attempt. Was Bo trying to push himself into power?

What makes this frightening for China's leaders, of course, is that it de-legitimizes the Party.

The transition to political power has been under way for at least a few years for politicians such as Bo and other contenders for seats in the Standing Committee of the Politburo. The general convention is that a candidate tries to demonstrate his leadership qualities while not drawing too much attention to himself. Bo broke with convention by drawing significant attention to himself and by trying to use a popular political base to make his selection inevitable. He seemed to be gambling that the party elders would be persuaded--if not forced--to promote him not only on the merits of his achievements, but also on the strength of his popular appeal. The reference to Lin Biao is apt in the sense that both men got ahead of themselves in their push to power, but Lin had already been anointed by Mao, whereas Bo was still trying to ensure his selection as one of the seniormost leaders.

Can you tell us anything more about Bo? Clearly he was an extrovert, spoke excellent English, and had a lust for power.

What strikes me most is just the stupefying irony of Bo's downfall. Here is a politician whose bid for political power was based on moral rectitude and an anti-corruption platform, and yet he is brought down by corruption and truly egregious violations of the law by members of his own family. We in the United States have a lot of experience with politicians who don't practice what they preach, but we rarely have an opportunity to see this particular brand of politics play out in the same way or at such scale in China.

Is this symptomatic of the top leaders that they all have access to tremendous wealth through bribes and other forms of corruption?

Corruption ranks at the top of the Chinese people's concerns about their government and society. Bo's case, however, speaks to a depth and breadth of corruption that is breathtaking: murder, the secreting away of hundreds of millions of dollars in assets by his family, and the likely special favors accorded his son in his education at Harrow, Oxford, and Harvard's Kennedy School.

What makes this frightening for China's leaders, of course, is that it delegitimizes the party. In a democracy, if the people elect someone like Bo, they have no one to blame but themselves. However, in China, they have only the party to blame. The people didn't pick Bo, and they didn't pick the people who picked Bo. It is hard to for the party to argue that the party knows best if this is the best that the party can do.

The hope, of course, is that Bo's demise will become a wedge for the political reformers in the party to use to promote greater transparency and perhaps even more elections within the political system. However, there is no guarantee that they will be successful.

Moreover, many within the party leadership have to be worried about how the tentacles of corruption are woven through the fabric of their own families and whether the downfall of Bo might lead to demands by the people for further investigations into corruption by the families of senior party leaders. These concerns might well be enough to try to make the case that Bo Xilai is the exception to the rule, and his case should be taken as an example of how well the party can manage its internal affairs.

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