The purging of Bo Xilai, until recently the popular party chief of Chongqing, makes for riveting drama. The Communist party, hoping to engineer a smooth, once-in-a-decade leadership transition, has been forced to air its filthy laundry in public. One of its rising stars, a “princeling” seemingly destined to become a member of the nine-member standing committee, is blamed for serious, unspecified, breaches of party discipline. His wife stands accused of murder.
This is deeply embarrassing for a party that likes to project an image of unity and probity. It is possible that the Communist party leadership will see it as a victory. It has, after all, neutralised a popular politician who sought legitimacy not through party organs but by appealing directly to the public. For an organisation that thrives on discipline and the myth of infallibility that was dangerous indeed.
Yet the very public purge is deeply problematic. If Mr Bo had merely been a dangerous outlier, the leadership could have quietly sidelined him by not selecting him for the standing committee next autumn. That they felt obliged to remove him so publicly suggests a deep schism at the very top.
Having dispensed with Mr Bo, the transition may be back on track. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang may well now take up their positions as president and premier respectively. Yet that is not assured. If, as seems likely, deep ideological and factional fissures remain, there could be more drama between now and October.
In some senses, the Bo affair has blown the lid off party secrecy. But in another, it has highlighted just what an arcane outfit it remains. Who caused Mr Bo’s downfall and why? Was it Wen Jiabao, the premier, who drove the final nail into Mr Bo’s political coffin? Did he do so because Mr Bo had challenged the party through populist policies, or because his “anti-mafia” campaign had overstepped legal bounds? Or was it just because his wife allegedly bumped off a British businessman? The fact that we have no real answers to such questions proves how unaccountable the Communist party still is.
Advocates of the Beijing consensus had portrayed the Chinese leadership as competent and technocratic. The party was, so the theory went, increasingly rules-based and rational. It was subject to periodic, well-ordered transitions of power. That view looks increasingly naive. If we thought the Communist party was stable, we should think again. Just how opaque an organisation it remains was revealed in the extraordinary explanations of the purge it has sought to foist on an increasingly savvy, wired-up public. Hundreds of millions of people with access to microblogging sites have been speculating about the affair for months with surprising accuracy.
In the internet age, the party has lost its ability to settle internal affairs behind closed doors. It has tried to present the downfall of Mr Bo as proof that no one is above the law. It is a nice thought. Instead, the antics of Mr Bo only bolster popular belief in the fabulous wealth and sense of impunity those in the upper echelons of power enjoy.
Mr Bo’s Harrow, Oxford and Harvard-educated son became notorious for driving a red Ferrari, symbolising the ostentation and sense of entitlement of the “princelings”. But no one can seriously believe Mr Bo and his family are the only offenders. Many sons and daughters of the party elders, including members of the current leadership, have parlayed their connections into fabulous wealth.
What are the lessons the party could sensibly draw? First, it should ensure that the trial of Gu Kailai, Mr Bo’s wife, is open and transparent. Unfortunately, there is little chance of that. Yet the more this resembles a political witch-hunt and the less a proper criminal investigation, the worse it will be for the party’s image. Second, it ought to spell out what Mr Bo did wrong. If the party has reason to believe his drive against crime and corruption in Chongqing overstepped the mark, it should explain why it did nothing to stop him at the time.
Finally, the new leadership will have to address some of the issues Mr Bo brought to light. The Chongqing party chief was popular for a reason. His anti-corruption, anti-wealth gap, pro-environment policies may well have been deeply suspect. But they struck a chord with people and highlighted the terrible inadequacies of China’s unbalanced growth.
The new party leadership will need to tackle those issues head-on if it hopes to regain the legitimacy badly damaged by the Bo affair. That will be the most difficult task of all.