Banyan: Rewriting the rules

The political battle following Bo Xilai’s demise will define China’s future – Published on The Economist, March 31, 2012.

BY THE normal script of Communist Party purges, the dismissal of Chongqing’s party chief, Bo Xilai, on March 15th should have been followed by an uneasy silence while the nation awaited the inevitable denunciations. Instead the murky case of the ambitious politician has stoked a long-simmering debate about the future of the country’s economic and political reforms. Mr Bo’s supporters seem unbowed. Internet users are defying censors with gossip about the fierce struggle for power many believe is under way. The rules of Chinese politics are being rewritten.  

If even the gist of the microblog-fuelled rumour is proved correct, Mr Bo’s fall would be one of the most dramatic since the party came to power in 1949. Some of the web gossip looks fanciful. It seems unlikely, for example, that there was a failed coup in Beijing on March 19th led by Zhou Yongkang, an ally of Mr Bo’s who heads the internal-security forces. Despite furious speculation on the internet, Mr Zhou has since appeared on television performing his duties as normal.

But even what is known, or looks plausible enough to take seriously, is remarkable by the standards of a country that has prided itself on the relative stability of its elite politics since the Tiananmen Square upheaval of 1989 (notwithstanding the jailing of a couple of Politburo-level officials for corruption). For some Chinese, recent events recall dramas of yore: the death in 1971 of Lin Biao, once Chairman Mao’s chosen successor, in a plane crash as he fled to the Soviet Union after an alleged coup attempt; the arrest in 1976 of the “Gang of Four” after Mao Zedong’s death.

In closed-door briefings for officials in mid-March, circulated online in a leaked transcript believed to be genuine, Mr Bo was accused of trying to block a corruption investigation into his family. Chongqing’s police chief, Wang Lijun, was abruptly dismissed by Mr Bo after telling him about the probe. Officials were told that Mr Wang’s flight to the American consulate in the city of Chengdu on February 6th was an attempt to escape feared persecution. They were told that Mr Wang sought political asylum but eventually agreed (for reasons unstated) to leave. He is now in custody. American officials are keeping diplomatically quiet … //

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Liberals have been equally active. “Recent events make one thing crystal clear: it is time to change China’s system of government,” argued a daring commentary published by Caixin Media, a Beijing magazine publisher. It was time, it said, for China to embark on “gradual but firm” political reform. Few believe that likely in the near future. But Chongqing has already begun to wind down Mr Bo’s red-culture campaign. A satellite-TV channel casting itself as the nation’s first to devote itself to redness is moving from daily to weekly programming of “red songs”, and is reintroducing advertising. Liberal jingles have the edge for the moment.
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