Magazine article The Spectator

Cracks in China

Magazine article The Spectator

Cracks in China

Article excerpt

The downfall of Bo Xilai has been the closest thing the Chinese get to a proper public scandal. Here was the attention-seeking boss of the mega-municipality of Chongqing, a colourful rock star in the country's monochrome politics, sacked in mysterious circumstances that gripped a gossip-hungry nation. China's authorities this week even felt compelled to ban the word 'coup' from microblogging sites, amid wild speculation that an overthrow was in the offing.

The choice of Bo's successor, a trusted establishment figure, suggests that the authorities who ousted him have had enough of big personalities in politics - but the truth is more complex. For all its pride in its growth, the People's Republic is wracked with uncertainty about its future. Its leaders know that their country has reached a crossroads. But they don't know where to go next.

The imbroglio surrounding Bo marks a new stage in the breakdown of the unity the Communist party has sought to impose. Now factionalism has come into the open.

The Bo drama was set off when Wang Lijun, the former Chongqing police chief, whom Bo had demoted, sped off to a US consulate in western China, apparently to seek asylum, which was refused. He was then spirited to Beijing by public security officials. Wang and Bo's falling out is said to stem from a government investigation of alleged corruption by Bo's family. Wang was part of this and told his boss, who then sidelined him into a municipal job responsible for education and the environment. The intense, bespectacled Wang knows a lot of his ex-boss's secrets, which are just what Bo's enemies in Beijing want to use to block his ascension to China's supreme decision-making body, the Standing Committee of the Politburo, whose membership will be decided later this year.

Bo was one of the 'princelings' expected to move to the top under the next party leader, Xi Jinping. Their fathers were leaders of the first generation of China's Communist leaders - Bo's father was Mao's finance minister, while Xi's was a Mao-era vice-premier who was removed in the Cultural Revolution and then brought back by Deng Xiaoping.

The princelings are associated with China's new rich - Bo wears smart suits and his Ferrari-driving son attended Harrow and Balliol before moving on to the Kennedy School at Harvard. The stockily built Xi, who made his way up the ranks after his father was rehabilitated, is married to one of China's favourite singers.

The mixture of populism and blatant ambition made Bo a vulnerable figure in the end, a tall poppy ripe for decapitation by the party establishment. Beyond that, his fall and replacement by a trusted apparatchik from the central government means that his old-style statist approach to economic development with appeals to traditional patriotism has been sidelined.

Mainstream reformers greeted Bo's demise with delight. They see the need to change the system. The model that has transformed the country from basket case to the world's second biggest economic power is increasingly unsustainable. China's political straitjacket is under strain as society evolves on a scale and at a speed that escapes the system.

But the power of entrenched interests in the last major country ruled by a Communist party is enormous, stretching from party bureaucrats through huge state-owned enterprises to billionaires who are doing very nicely indeed out of the present system as they sip fine claret in their luxury homes.

Though Mao's face stares out over Tiananmen Square and from all banknotes, the once revolutionary regime has become a status quo state.

Admirers laud the 'China model'. Fans of the way the People's Republic (PRC) gets things done stretch from George Soros and Francis Fukuyama to ex-Marxists who, having been let down by the Soviet Union, see it as a new champion rising unstoppably in the East. An opposing school waits for China to collapse under its weaknesses: its fragile property market and over-extended banking system. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.