Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bo Xilai's downfall and China's future

A DECADE ago when Mr Hu Jintao and Mr Wen Jiabao were installed as China's President and Premier, respectively, one could have been fooled into thinking that the process by which they were selected ran like clockwork. Indeed, some apologists for Beijing's authoritarian rule have argued that the way in which the Communist Party picks its leaders is a model of technocratic rule. Prospective candidates for top slots are groomed over years in the most demanding jobs the vast country has to offer. The competition is ferocious. But the process lacks some vital ingredients. It is neither transparent nor accountable.
Then there is the vicious factional infighting that the party tries its best to hide, which is based as much on the pursuit of raw power as on any ideological distinction. This bubbled to the surface with a vengeance last week when Mr Bo Xilai, Communist Party chief of Chongqing, was purged in one of the most dramatic political upheavals since 1989.
It is broadly to be welcomed that Mr Bo's campaign to secure himself a place on the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, China's most powerful ruling body, has been cut short. Mr Bo displayed some dangerous demagogic tendencies, resorted to extra-legal activities and ransacked some of the worst bits of China's recent history, notably the Cultural Revolution, for tips on how to govern. Mr Wen was right to warn of the dangers that such a loose cannon posed.
One could argue that Mr Bo's downfall affirms the ability of China's murky selection process to weed out unsuitable candidates. But that would be too generous an interpretation.
The fact that Mr Bo has been replaced by an economist trained in, of all places, North Korea hardly suggests that the purge spells a clear victory for progress and reason. That Mr Bo's replacement comes from the faction controlled by former president Jiang Zemin shows instead that the battle between elite conservatives allied with Mr Jiang and more liberal members of the Communist Party associated with Mr Hu and Mr Wen is still raging.
Nor can we take too much solace from the seeming victory of Mr Wen, whose speech last week spelt the end of Mr Bo's campaign. Mr Wen's liberal-sounding rhetoric about the need for greater democracy and less social division is appealing. But the fact is his words have never been translated into reality. Far from it, the last 10 years have seen a sharpening of economic inequality, a flourishing of corruption and a more brutal crackdown on dissent. No wonder Mr Bo, who campaigned against graft and the yawning wealth gap, garnered strong support.
Only the faintest of shadows of the ideological struggle that must be raging within the heart of the Communist Party are visible. But some things are obvious. If China is to avoid a political and economic crisis, some of what Mr Wen has been hinting at for years must be put into action.
There are some steps, well short of the full-blown democracy so feared by the Communist Party, that could be taken. First, dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, and others should be released. What most of these political activists are demanding is enshrined in China's own post-1949 Constitution. Mr Wen's rhetoric is incompatible with silencing such people and depriving them of their liberty.
Second, there should be more experiments with genuine democracy, if only, initially, at the village, county and township levels advocated by Mr Wen. Here the experience of Wukan, a village in southern China that organised its own election after expelling corrupt officials, is instructive. It is mildly encouraging that the Communist Party in Guangdong, where Wukan is located, chose to let the elections proceed rather than sending in troops as some feared.
Third, the party must act more decisively to clamp down on the corruption that is eating away at its credibility. Finally, it should work harder to address pressing economic and social issues by, for example, building a better safety net and taking more decisive measures to favour the consumer over the (mainly state- owned) producer.
Most of this is highly unlikely. The Communist Party fears, perhaps with reason, that if it starts such a process it can only lead to its own demise. Yet the alternative script will, eventually, end with the same outcome. The economic, social and political contradictions at the heart of China are unsustainable in the long term. They cannot forever remain hidden in the bosom of the Communist Party. That was the real meaning of last week's political eruption.
This is an editorial carried by the Financial Times yesterday.