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Democracy: the Real Winner in the Bo Xilai Scandal

By Elizabeth Pond

Suddenly, a generation after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, democracy, or at least proto-democracy, is again in the air in China. Space has been created for reformists like outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao and Guangdong party chief Wang Yang.

This time around, the pro-democracy advocates are not student protesters in Beijing's central square. China's burgeoning middle class is far more interested in shopping. By an irony of history, the real successors of the 1989 student movement today are the would-be liberalizers within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) itself. They have fought a losing battle as the reforms started by Deng Xiaoping slowed in the past decade. But they have now received an unexpected boost from the strange soap opera of the once-flamboyant "princeling" Bo Xilai.

Until this spring Bo, son of a legendary comrade of Mao Zedong from the 1949 revolution and until this month party chief of the southwest city of Chongqing, was a frontrunner for advancement to the party's inner sanctum of the Politburo Standing Committee. That was to come next October, in the once-a-decade shift from the old to a new generation of leaders. He was abruptly stripped of his senior party posts in early April, however, and his wife is being investigated as a suspect in the murder of a British businessman in a Chongqing hotel last November.

Bo was no liberal. Indeed, his protean initiatives defied any neat left-right classification. He was above all a self-promoter, and he touted his 32-million-strong province as a model for all of China in everything from planting trees to executing gangsters (and some he branded gangsters) to restoring a central role for inefficient state-run enterprises. His fall has not radically changed the political spectrum at the top of the party, since today's party factions define themselves less by policy than by inheritance, pitting princeling scions of Mao's original Communist aristocracy against those of more humble pedigree who have risen through the Youth League to upper party ranks.

Nonetheless, Bo's spectacular departure from politics has changed the balance more subtly. His ruthless approach to politics attracted like-minded allies in recent years. He became a hero to some in the military and to some in the neo-Maoist left. He courted this following by his campaign of mass singalongs of Red songs from the olden days. His abrupt descent therefore discredited the neo-Maoists—and the party's unprecedented censoring of new-left microblogs and even internet searches for the name Bo Xilai shocked and awed many.

The outcome gives more room for the relative liberals to maneuver. With a few exceptions, they can hardly be called real democrats. But they embrace such protodemocratic goals as more openness, social fairness, and individual freedom. They want to introduce bottom-up political participation, a narrowed income gap between city and countryside, safer foods and trains and buildings, and an end to the draconian hukou registration system that Mao devised to keep peasants from moving to the rich cities. As articulated in the periodic homilies by outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao over the past decade, this faction believes that China's pell-mell modernization will fall into middle-income stasis unless the world's second-largest economy curbs its subsidized state banks, revives dormant economic reforms, introduces political reforms, and tolerates more personal initiative.

The picture remains murky, but the centrists seem to have made common cause with the liberalizers against Bo Xilai's threat to harmonious collective leadership, i.e., continued equilibrium between the factions. The liberalizers acted quickly on the godsend given them when Bo's long-time deputy and police enforcer feuded with his boss, fled to a U.S. consulate, and surrendered to Beijing police with incriminating documents about strong-arm tactics against rivals extending even to murder of British consultant and fixer Neil Heywood. The centrists rallied. The Politburo first ousted Bo from his regional barony and, after examining the police chief's dossiers, charged Bo's wife with homicide, allegedly by poison.

Bo paid a high price for his hubris. This week he lost more than just the power and presumed impunity of a spot on the Politburo Standing Committee. He lost as well his seats on the Politburo and Central Committee, and he may yet be charged with crimes himself. His example is a warning to others in next-to-the-top echelons to keep their heads down.

The net effect of this escapade has been to discredit the neo-Maoists and free more space in the party's policy mix for would-be liberalizers. Before the ruction, the West's gravest financial crisis since the 1930s had delegitimized Western models in the eyes of many Chinese, while Bo's campaign for promotion on nostalgia for founding father Mao Zedong seemed attractive. This year's dust-up, however, delegitimized Bo's model and at least shifted the party's center of gravity toward resumption of stalled liberal reforms.

At a press conference last month, Premier Wen—who has long advocated further reforms in vain—declared, "Now reforms in China have come to a critical stage … without a successful political reform, it’s impossible for China to fully institute economic reform and the gains we have made in these areas may be lost, and new problems that popped up in the Chinese society will not be fundamentally resolved … The reform can only go forward and must not stand still, let alone go backwards, because that offers no way out." He added pointedly that the desire for democracy in the Middle East had to be “respected and truly responded to."

Could party insiders like Wen actually become drivers to carry on the 1989 student flirtation with democracy? Could or would a party that has brilliantly managed the tumultuous industrial transition to the 21st century, produced China's economic miracle, and raised half a billion peasants from absolute poverty—while still keeping one-party control—repeat this improbable feat in political modernization?  Or could it at least nudge China in the direction of wider political participation and rule of law?

The answers to these question will depend in great part on the most prominent party carriers of liberal hopes: outgoing Premier Wen and rising Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang. Wen began his political career as a protégé of Zhao Ziyang, the CCP General Secretary who was fired after he supported the students on Tienanmen square and was then held under informal house arrest for the next 16 years until his death. Lately some websites honoring Zhao have been posted and display a 1989 photo showing Zhao and a young Wen talking with students at Tienanmen.

Wen still continues with his liberal rhetoric. In February, on a visit to a village in Guangzhou, he stressed the importance of protecting farmers' rights. In March he called for social justice, both in narrowing the huge gap between rich and poor, and in righting wrongs in court verdicts. A few hours before Bo was sacked from his Chongqing post, Wen presaged the ouster by re-raising the taboo subject of disasters in China's Communist history. He alluded to the "historic tragedy of the Cultural Revolution," and he would even have alluded to the greatest taboo of all, the Tiananmen massacre, had he not been blocked by party colleagues, according to the Financial Times.

After all the turmoil this spring it is doubtful that the CCP would risk more upheaval by launching major political changes before the shift of generations in October. By then Wen will be out of office. The liberal mantel will likely fall on Bo Xilai's antithesis, the more discreet Wang Yang, party secretary in the Guangdong birthplace of the Chinese economic miracle, with a GDP last year of $84 billion. Wang, who advanced on the Youth League track, has not made enemies by flaunting his accomplishments as a "model" for China as Bo did in Chongqing. Nor has he played any public role in Bo's downfall. In the past week he has simply joined other province leaders in swearing allegiance to the party hierarchy. He is now deemed the most likely candidate from the generation-in-waiting to be promoted to the Politburo Standing Committe post once coveted by Bo. He has a reputation for conciliation in mediating higher wages for striking migrant factory workers in his province and, most recently, intervening on behalf of protesting peasants in the fishing village of Wukan. Wang called the villagers' demonstration against a seizure of their cropland by local party bosses a "quest for fairness." Instead of sending in police or the usual hired thugs to beat up the demonstrators, Wang's deputy negotiated the release of protesters from jail and replacement of the local party officials in a subsequent free election organized by the villagers themselves. 

Uniquely, Wang is further encouraging formation of non-governmental organizations throughout the province, simplifying their registration and praising them for their contribution in "clarifying responsibilities of government and society" and for giving "power back to society."

If Wang continues in this vein, he will have the support of relative liberals in the various party and consultative thinktanks that post-Mao reformer Deng Xiaoping established three decades ago. Scholars in these institutes have been shuttling unorthodox reform recommendations to CCP policymakers for many years. The party's senior drafter of land legislation—which has progressively lengthened peasants' land-tenure rights to the present 30 years, renewable—is an alumnus of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). The Academy recently published an exhaustive survey of Chinese farmers' opinions on rural policy by the Seattle-based Landesa NGO that urges China to enforce these land-tenure rules against local landgrabs. And other Chinese thinktanks are expanding their room for policy proposals by teaming up with international non-profits. The Development Research Center of China's State Council and the World Bank have published a joint proposal on rebalancing the roles of government and market in China in order to escape the middle-income trap and go on to become a rich country. Peking University and the Brookings Institution have published a joint analysis of strategic distrust between China and the United States.

Moreover, CASS gadfly scholar Yu Jianrong—one of the passionate true believers in democracy and the champion of the marginalized, from child beggars to peasants whose land has been seized to migrant workers whose children are denied schooling in factory cities—has just sent out to his million-plus microblog audience a step-by-step outline for introducing by 2022 a "constitutional democracy, with political reform as the premise and civil rights as the foundation."

In Tokyo's Diplomat on April 4 Claremont McKenna College Professor Minxin Pei describes the new malaise among intellectuals as a "widely shared consensus among China’s thinking class that the country’s economic reform is either dead or mired in stagnation. … [Intellectuals] argue that only political reform, specifically the kind that reduces the power of the state and makes the government accountable to its people, will resuscitate economic reform. … [T]he status quo, which can be characterized as a sclerotic authoritarian crony-capitalist order, isn’t sustainable and, without a fundamental shift in direction, a crisis is inevitable."

He continues, "One may be tempted to dismiss such discussions as idle chatter among marginalized Chinese intellectuals. This would be a mistake. Some of the participants in these discussions are influential opinion makers or advisors to the Chinese government. Their views reflect the thinking of at least some insiders of the Communist Party. So the frustrated tone and anxiety conveyed by their views could suggest that more open-minded elements in the party, some of whom may be in line to assume senior or important positions as a result of the leadership transition, share the same sense of crisis and urgency. … No Chinese leader can survive long if he is seen or labeled by the elite members of the intelligentsia universally as an obstacle to reform. … [W]hat's becoming increasingly apparent is that many of the social and political conditions for producing a Tiananmen-style crisis have re-emerged."

Relative CCP liberals who share this sense of crisis will face stiff opposition, however, from a party hierarchy that has become accustomed to exercising arbitrary power and by oligarchs who have benefited from party favors they have received over the years. A reminder of this came on the same day Bo Xilai was relieved of all party posts this week. In a clear example of what Chinese officials call "rule by law" rather than "rule of law" in English—that is, law as decreed by the CCP and interpreted by courts subject to party instructions—a disabled lawyer who has defended people evicted from their homes was sentenced to almost three more years in prison for alleged fraud and causing a disturbance. Lawyer Ni Yulan's "fraud" consisted of giving evictees legal advice even after officials disbarred her to stop her defense of the defenseless. She was crippled by abuse in her earlier term in jail.

The party's center of gravity has shifted. But the relative liberals have a long way to go to replicate China's economic transition in a second-stage political transition.



Elizabeth Pond's first visit to China was by bicycle in 1984. Her last was in 2011, by plane and high-speed train.

[Picture courtesy of Voice of America]


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