Power plays and shows of military strength are not uncommon in Chinese politics, but the silence surrounding the toppling of Bo Xilai has observers mystified.THE art of purging a popular and capable leader is making sure they stay purged, at least until they are no longer any threat to the person doing the purging. At a bare minimum you need to inflict irreparable damage on their character, hence the Gillard government’s (belated) carpet bombing of Kevin Rudd.
The Labor Party is normally pretty efficient at destroying its people, but the Chinese Communist Party is in a class of its own. That’s why the dead silence around Bo Xilai, the maverick princeling politician who was toppled in March, is making so many people nervous.
Bo was China’s most loved and feared leader, who built a personal, Mao-flavoured dictatorship in Chongqing. He was daring, unpredictable and absolutely ruthless. If Bo is fired but isn’t destroyed – with a political stake thrust through his heart – could he one day return to wreak havoc as China’s strongman saviour?
In political systems where power trumps rules and there are no independent arbitrators, if you don’t destroy your opponents, then they might exact their revenge in ways that don’t only involve losing your job. The system is as brittle as it is brutal. Division at the top means death.
Chairman Mao liked to broadcast the sins of his imagined rivals and write them on the walls. Then he would set the masses onto them, torture them a while, or let them explode in escaping planes or die naked and emaciated in their vomit.
Stalin preferred bullets, at least since letting Trotsky roam the world in martyr-like exile, an embarrassment that was compounded when the first assassin botched the job and the second closed his eyes while planting the ice pick in his head. (His blow was so poorly delivered that Trotsky was reportedly able to turn around, ice pick in head, spit in his face and say unkind things about Stalin.)
The more politically correct Politburo leaders of the post-Mao era would jail their rivals for corruption, lock them in their houses until their deaths, or destroy their reputations and leave them in living purgatory at their desks. Boring, perhaps, but once they were written out of history they never recovered.
It might not sound like the way to run a modern power, with the world’s second-largest military budget and economy, but the Communist Party has declined to allow any more democratic leadership selection mechanisms that would enable any other choice. And Bo Xilai, it seems, has got them flummoxed.
Fourteen weeks have passed since Bo was toppled as party boss of Chongqing city and placed under some form of house arrest. It was widely billed as the biggest event in Chinese politics since the Tiananmen massacres of 1989, not least because Premier Wen Jiabao implicitly compared Bo’s Chongqing with Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
The Politburo is so factionally divided – and Bo subdivided it in so many personal and ideological ways – that they haven’t yet worked out how to frame his sins, even though he gave them rich material to work with. Bo bypassed official channels, flirted brazenly with the military, arrested a lawyer working for a princeling peer and bent every rule of party discipline. One highlight was when a local billionaire testified how he had been tortured, stripped of his assets and then told that it was all for Bo looking after the interests of an old princeling friend in the army who has since moved on to control China’s nuclear arsenal.
Bo’s police chief, Wang Lijun, had been so nervous about what Bo might do to him that he tried to defect to the US, with detailed allegations of how Bo’s wife had laundered money and murdered an English friend. And Bo was positioning himself as a neo-Maoist hero while his polo-playing son was driving a Porsche at Harvard.
Despite the smorgasbord of sins, there has been no word on what Bo has been accused of beyond the ”serious violations” of party discipline.
The game of politics is all about momentum that has now been lost. It will now be that much harder to destroy China’s most polarising leader. Supporters have had time to rally, conspiracies have filled the information vacuum, doubts about the competence of President Hu Jintao have had time to grow.
Pundits had predicted it would be all wrapped up by the end of June, in time to get on with the regular brutality of politicking ahead of a once-in-a-decade leadership change in the final months of this year.
And only after a long and multi-phased transition period can incoming leader Xi Jinping get on with thinking seriously about the challenges that are mounting all around him.
The Chinese economy, which has single-handedly lifted Australia to the top of the world prosperity tables, looks cyclically soft and structurally sick. Last week, China found itself in new territorial fights with both the Philippines and Vietnam, and announced it was moving ”combat-ready” patrols into the South China Sea. Earlier in the week, residential streets in Guangdong were closed off after rioters attacked police, over yet another case of officials appropriating land.
If Bo’s colleagues have agreed to contain the damage by not charging him with serious political transgressions, as seems likely, then China will have missed its best chance for directional change and reform.
If he is charged with criminal offences, then they had better be convincing, given that it is so far only his wife who has been accused of murder and financial impropriety. Corruption would also be complicated, given the powerful counter-parties that might be involved. And even though Bo’s extended family is worth at least $136 million, a forensic Bloomberg investigation published Friday put the identifiable assets of the extended family of Xi Jinping at hundreds of millions of dollars.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.