China: Stranger than faction

By Jamil Anderlini

The rare bust-up in the Communist party has exposed deep rifts, says Jamil Anderlini
Hu Jintao; Wen Jiabao; Xi Jinping©GettyAnointed future president Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Wen Jiabao (centre) greet President Hu Jintao in Beijing

“Comrade Bo Xilai has seriously violated the party discipline, causing damage to the cause and the image of the party and state. The Chinese Communist party, which represents the basic interests of all Chinese people, will not have any privileged party members who can overshadow laws and party discipline.”

Assumed until a few weeks ago to be on the verge of elevation to the country’s top political ranks, former high-flying party chief Mr Bo this week found himself stripped of all his Communist titles except “Comrade” and castigated in state media. His wife, Gu Kailai – like her “princeling” husband, the offspring of a revolutionary general – has been detained for alleged involvement in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in a hotel in the south-western metropolis of Chongqing on her birthday – November 15 – last year.

Mr Bo’s spectacular downfall represents China’s biggest political crisis since at least the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. In the run-up to the once-in-a-decade change in top brass towards the end of this year, the party’s response to this very rare public bust-up at the highest level is likely to determine the country’s course as it enters a more turbulent stage in its development.

Many in China and abroad are questioning whether the secretive, autocratic party will even be able to survive the damage to its legitimacy caused by this tale of corruption, murder and abuse of power.

One potential outcome is that instability and infighting among the elite leads to paralysis within the system, accompanied by an increase in repression as the party tries to crush any hint of dissent.

That possibility for now looks less likely, especially since Xi Jinping, the anointed future president, and most other leaders have acquiesced in Mr Bo’s downfall and the launch of investigations that could lead to the death penalty for him and his wife.

Some, however, foresee a more optimistic result. They are hopeful that the unintended consequence of Mr Bo’s messy demise could be the empowerment of reformers bent on creating a more transparent and democratic system governed by law rather than powerful individuals. It might sound like wishful thinking but Beijing is awash with such predictions.

“This crisis goes beyond factional politics and ideological disputes – it is a serious challenge to the whole party, an embarrassment that undermines the very legitimacy of party rule,” says Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution, the Washington-based think-tank. “But we may see something positive that comes out of this huge crisis – in the next few months, or at the most a year, we may see really bold constitutional and political reforms as the party tries to repair its image.”

When Mr Bo was dismissed as party secretary of Chongqing in mid-March, Mr Xi appeared publicly with President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and other senior leaders, in a carefully crafted display of loyalty to these figures who had ordered Mr Bo’s downfall. People familiar with high-level political discussions say Mr Xi agreed from the start with the decision to instigate the purge, a move opposed by many of Mr Bo’s influential allies at the top of the party and the military.

“[Mr Xi] has played it very well so far, and for now it looks like he may come out of this stronger than before,” says one person familiar with the political manoeuvring. “But it will depend on how well the party can repair its image.”

In hindsight, some have been tempted to characterise Mr Bo’s demise as a carefully planned plot carried out by his enemies, who include most of the country’s liberal, reform-minded leaders and intellectuals.

People familiar with the matter say an investigation was launched last year into the background of Wang Lijun, the hard-bitten Chongqing police chief who owed his career to Mr Bo; and possibly also into Ms Gu. Such secret investigations are common in the opaque world of Chinese politics as various factions try to gain leverage over their adversaries. They could have been used to press Mr Bo not to campaign for one of the positions on the nine-member standing committee of the politburo of the party, the highest decision-making body, that are up for grabs this year.

But political insiders say nobody could have foreseen that Ms Gu would allegedly murder a British businessman with close ties to the family or that Mr Wang would flee to a US consulate and request asylum after falling out with Mr Bo. Both have caused great embarrassment. At the very least, Mr Wang’s very public attempt to defect, and the fact he handed over a stack of sensitive documents to US officials during a sojourn in the consulate lasting more than 24 hours, has severely damaged the party’s image in the eyes of the wider population.

The entire episode has also exposed deep rifts in the top ranks. Mr Bo’s closest allies were Zhou Yongkang, the powerful head of the repressive domestic security apparatus, and Jiang Zemin, the former president who still wields influence from behind the scenes. As a princeling and a hardline nationalist, Mr Bo also had close ties to leading figures in the People’s Liberation Army.

Clearly identifying factions in China’s murky politics is notoriously difficult but this loosely affiliated group forms the core of the conservative, elitist hardline faction. Mr Bo had been seen as a “cannon” used by members of this grouping to attack enemies and put forward its views on the national stage.

On the other side is a more cohesive grouping, sometimes described as centrists or even reformers, focused on Mr Hu’s Communist Youth League faction. It broadly includes Mr Wen; anointed future premier Li Keqiang; Wang Yang, party secretary of Guangdong province; and other more liberal forces.

Mr Xi has never revealed his political cards and many analysts believe even he is not certain of exactly what views he holds – but for now he appears solidly on the side of the ascendant faction led by Mr Hu.

This is a shift from December 2010, when Mr Xi paid a visit to Mr Bo’s metropolis and lavished him with praise. In a stage-managed tour, Mr Xi “sang the praises of Chongqing’s achievements in its smashing black, getting-rid-of-evil battle and in improving law and order in society”, according to state media reports at the time.

His visit was seen as an endorsement of Mr Bo’s bid for promotion to the highest levels of the party hierarchy. It was also viewed as the coalescing of the elite “princeling” faction comprising officials from leading revolutionary families, many of them believers in hereditary rule by the heirs of the 1949 Communist victory. Like Mr Bo, Mr Xi is the son of a revolutionary general returned to the pinnacle of the party in the 1980s and 1990s after being purged during the 1966-76 cultural revolution.

But people close to both families say the two men have never got along, and that their relatives have been on opposite sides of factional battles that go back to the early 1960s, when Mr Xi’s father was branded a traitor and thrown in prison. These people say Mr Xi, although himself a princeling, agrees with those who argue Mr Bo represented a dangerous political trend – away from greater rule of law and towards a more arbitrary, hereditary approach.

Mr Bo’s crackdown on “organised crime” was the most prominent example of this attitude. It has been severely criticised by legal scholars and liberals for the extensive use of torture, illegal detention and plundering of private assets that accompanied it.

“Under Bo and Wang Lijun, the Chongqing police ignored the law, did whatever they wanted and went violently out of control – that was Chongqing,” says Li Zhuang, a high-profile lawyer imprisoned for 548 days during Mr Bo’s campaign, accused of telling a client to say that he had been tortured.

China has not seen such a power struggle since 1989, when the party split over how to deal with student demonstrators demanding democracy and an overhaul of autocratic rule. The subsequent massacre was followed by a purge of senior officials, and in its wake Beijing launched market reforms that led to two decades of rapid economic growth.

But most experts agree that the next wave of growth will be much harder to achieve and will require crucial political reforms to improve the rule of law, shore up social stability and reduce the influence of powerful vested interests, including state-owned enterprise monopolies.

Today, Mr Bo’s downfall has been accompanied by an official emphasis on the importance of following party rules and Chinese law in the handling of the Bos. “Everyone is equal in front of the law. There is no privilege in the system and no exceptions in terms of regulations. Anyone who infringes upon laws shall be convicted and punished,” People’s Daily, the main party newspaper, said in an editorial on Friday.

Even carefully censored state media have been calling for a transparent case to be brought in public against Mr Bo and his wife, unprecedented in cases of purged senior party officials.

But simply deciding how much of the case to make public poses a challenge to the embattled party.

“If they don’t release enough evidence on Bo’s crimes then the public will assume he was a good, upright official who is just being persecuted,” says Mr Li from Brookings. “But if they release too many sordid details then everyone will ask how such people could be the top leaders of the country and they will suspect that all the others are like this, too.”

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