Dethroning China’s ‘Bad Emperor’

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Melissa Chua's picture

Dethroning China’s ‘Bad Emperor’

Succession planning seems like the buzz words on everybody’s lips this year. However what stands out as one of the most pivotal moments of 2012 would be the once-in-a-decade handover of political leadership for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). What makes this political transition different from the previous handover is also the same factor that makes it notable to the rest the world –  China is now “economically integrated to an unprecedented degree with the rest of the world” (Jaishankar, 2012).Whether the country chooses to undertake the mantle of being the next ‘harmonious’ world leader or to display its military prowess by becoming more than a “latent security threat to most of its neighbours”, the responsibility would fall squarely on the shoulders of China’s new generation of leaders (Jaishankar, 2012). At the same time, as Beijing relaxes its foreign investment rules, potential and existing investors would be interested in the previously-exclusive country’s political climate to decide if it is conducive for continued investments (Rabinovitch & Hook, 2012).

This already challenging issue is further complicated by one of the most controversial political scandals that have rocked China’s political scene: the fall of Bo Xilai. There is no doubt that Bo has created the “most damaging split in party leadership” since the Tiananmen incident, to the extent that the ruling party is considering a delay in congress (Economist, 2012a); (Lim & Edwards, 2012). So far only the positions of the President and the Premier have been more-or-less settled, but the size and the remaining members of politburo standing committee are far from certain. Sources have pointed to the “shorten(ing) (of) the transition for the new leaders” and allowing more “time for debate over the size of the standing committee” as reasons for the delay (Lim & Edwards, 2012). However a delay for whatever reasons, justifiable or not, would indicate that Bo’s downfall had a detrimental effect on the party and has forced the party to take time out to deal with this crisis (Lim & Edwards, 2012). Furthermore this delay would “further unnerve global financial markets” by fuelling speculations of infighting and ruining the impression of “Chinese politics as a well-oiled machine” (Lim & Edwards, 2012).

While it is in China’s interest to present a united front to the world, party factions are not a recent development. In addition the broad window, from July to December, for the political transition allows the CCP enough time to resolve their problems and deliberate over the size and candidates of the standing committee while allowing investors to remain confident about China’s prospects (Johnson, 2012). This is typical of the black box analogy associated with the policy making in China: not much information is shared beyond the closed-doors of congress (Johnson, 2012). However, Bo’s downfall could function as a catalyst for change among the CCP’s political ranks.

Bo is the perfect embodiment of the ‘bad emperor’ problem as described by Francis Fukuyama (2012) that has plagued China’s government for more than 2000 years. The CCP has inherited a “highly sophisticated centralised bureaucracy”, well-versed in running the country in a top-down fashion, but sorely immature in its development of the rule of law (Fukuyama, 2012).The CCP being at the helm is free to rule as they please with nary any checks and balances. Interestingly enough, Mao Zedong was, according to popular opinion, the last bad emperor lording over the people of China and what could be said to be Bo’s claim to fame is the Chongqing model which had Maoist undertones (Fukuyama, 2012). Despite advocating the dahei campaign to fight corruption and crime in the southwestern municipality, Bo was not absolved from blame of the crimes he was so publicly against (Roberts, 2012).There is general disbelief over how Bo could have afforded his son’s expensive education and the family’s lavish lifestyle on his meagre state salary (Economist, 2012a). Rumours of Bo’s attempts to block a corruption investigation into his family and his lack of contempt for the law as he fights against organized crime have done little to reduce his culpability; intensifying the view that the government officials, unlike their citizens, are placed on a pedestal out of reach from the arms of the law (Economist, 2012b).

What Bo has done has more far-reaching consequences than anything pro-reform Wen Jiabao could have hoped to achieve in his push for political reforms. Bo has unintentionally created a “colossal legitimacy crisis” (Bell, 2012). The reason why the people of China could contend with a less-than-democratic rule of power was because they were generally satisfied with the regime; their only qualms being with the corruption of lower-level officials (Bell, 2012). However the controversy surrounding Bo suggests that the upper echelons of China’s political hierarchy are in poor shape as well and this undermines the political meritocracy aspect of the CCP’s legitimacy and weakens their ability to “resist calls for wholesale change of leadership” (Bell, 2012).

Bo’s fall from grace could be, as Cheng Li described, the “tipping point” for a change in China’s political system (Anderlini, 2012). For his Chongqing model, Bo became the face of a ‘new left’ force in Chinese politics, vehemently against the “slide into capitalism” and Deng Xiaoping’s idea of allowing some people to get rich first as he introduced the open door policy in 1978 (Economist, 2012a); (Roberts, 2012). Bo epitomized the reason for change: to prevent a re-visitation of Mao’s era with nostalgia and with Bo’s political elimination, the leftists will be “without their standard-bearer” (Economist, 2012b); (Johnson, 2012). This signals a victory for the reformers led by Wen and the prevention of a step back to a “less open and more dogma-ruled China” (Roberts, 2012). Removal of Bo and “his fondness for state-owned enterprises” from political power will also mean that Wen will have one less opponent to contend with when trying to break the state’s monopolistic grip on financial systems (Economist, 2012a).

The original intention of having the politburo standing committee is to “prevent the rise of another Mao” (Fukuyama, 2012). Despite the party’s best efforts, Bo exploited the loopholes of the current system and catapulted himself into consideration for the top political positions. He had garnered an impressive “independent power base” that should he be selected to be a member of the standing committee, he could have dominated the CCP leadership (Fukuyama, 2012). The The only way the party can resolve the unsustainable problem caused by its members being above the law is to address their perceived fading legitimacy in the eyes of the people is by “put(ting) its affairs under the purview of the law” and this is  (Anderlini, 2012). However this would mean that the CCP would have to surrender some power and place itself under the constitution (Anderlini, 2012).

While China’s economy has moved forward, its political structure has remained stagnant to the extent that it “remains strikingly similar to the Leninist framework imported from the Soviet Union after the Communist party came to power in 1949” (Anderlini, 2012). The archaic structure would not serve the country well in its attempts to maintain social stability. Hence before the new generation of Chinese leaders take over the top political ranks of the country, certain issues would have to be ironed out. The size of the standing committee may be expanded to 11 to accommodate more rival factions, intraparty elections might be introduced and all these would be done to regain the people’s trust in the CCP (Lim & Edwards, 2012); (Anderlini, 2012). Even though it is true that Bo’s case could have given Wen’s previously weak and ineffectual calls for democratic reform a push in the right direction, it unlikely that we would see a rapid breakdown of the socialist system this year. Hopefully beginning with this year’s leadership handover, China would start making piecemeal attempts to become more in sync with the rest of the world not only economically but politically too.

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