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    Greater China
     May 1, 2012

New life for China's political reformers
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - As the wreckage from the spectacular fall of Bo Xilai, the darling of China's increasingly marginalized leftists, is swept away, the country's political reformers find themselves standing in the clearing.

Bo's loss of his position as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief of Chongqing last month has, at least for now, proved to be their gain, and it is fair to say that reformers have not been more hopeful since the crackdown on the student-led pro-democracy movement on June 4, 1989.

On that day, when People's Liberation Army tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, hundreds, if not thousands, were killed, along with any dialogue about the democratization of China.

Now that dialogue may be set to resume - but don't expect


anything like a Western-style democracy to emerge as a result. Unlike in 1989, China's debate about democracy in 2012 refers strictly to enhancing accountability and participation in decision-making within the Communist Party - or so-called "intra-party" democracy.

Even if the reformers win, China will still be a one-party- and, from a Western point of view, undemocratic - state. But that one party could quite possibly be much more open and transparent (and therefore less corrupt) than the communist colossus we see today.

Indeed, this is the kind of change that Premier Wen Jiabao has been advocating for years, with no positive response from anyone else, including President Hu Jintao, among China's ruling clique. With both Wen and Hu on their way out in October after 10 years in power, Bo's sensational demise has provided an opening for political reform to receive a prominent place on the agenda of the 18th party congress, whose autumn meeting will endorse the next generation of leaders.

The weekend revelation that blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng staged a dramatic escape last week from house arrest in his home village in eastern Shandong province and has reportedly taken refuge in the US Embassy in Beijing should also provide ammunition for reformers.

Chen, one of China's most internationally recognized dissidents, was jailed in 2006 after accusing Shandong officials of forcing at least 7,000 women to undergo sterilization or late-term abortions in adherence to China's one-child policy. In the end, he was convicted of "organizing a crowd to disrupt traffic" and "damaging public property".

Chen, who claims that he and his wife have been severely beaten by local officials over the past year, had been under house arrest in Dongshigu village since his release from prison in 2010. Following his escape, he posted a video online directly appealing to Wen, the lonely voice of reform among the present leadership.

Chen's video makes three demands of the premier - that the local officials who allegedly assaulted him are prosecuted, that his family's safety is guaranteed and that corruption in general in China is honestly addressed and punished under the law.

Embarrassingly, reports that Chen is now under US protection in Beijing come as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are scheduled to fly into the Chinese capital this week for annual talks as part of the ongoing China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

It is hard to imagine the Chen case not coming up as Clinton and Geithner sit down with their Chinese counterparts; it is equally hard to imagine champions of political reform in the CCP not doing their best to use the embarrassment of this case to push harder for their agenda.

These will be the last Sino-American talks under this band of Chinese leaders.

At this point, barring any further political upheaval, it is expected that current Vice President Xi Jinping will assume the presidency next year and that Vice Premier Li Keqiang will take over for Wen. So far, how they feel about a more open, transparent party is unknown, but there is no doubt that they have grasped the significance of Bo's fall from grace in Chongqing, a sprawling southwestern municipality of more than 30 million people.

Until his removal as Chongqing boss and, subsequently, from the ruling politburo, the popular and charismatic Bo, 62, was considered a prime candidate for elevation to the all-powerful nine-member Politburo Standing Committee at the autumn party congress.

During his five-year reign in Chongqing, Bo attracted international attention for his tough and highly successful (critics said ruthless and patently extralegal) war on crime in a city that had become notorious for its powerful triads and for a corrupt officialdom in their thrall.

Bo's naked populism and revival of revolutionary Maoist rhetoric added to his fame and - whether Bo's exploitation of Mao Zedong's legacy was a Machiavellian ploy to whip up popular support or a genuine embrace of the Great Helmsman's communist ideals - it quickly made him the poster boy for party leftists disgruntled by China's 30-year love affair with capitalism, which has created a huge wealth gap in the country.

Meanwhile, Chongqing's gross domestic product growth of 16.4% was tops in China in 2011, further enhancing Bo's reputation and political ambitions. Heading into 2012, the "Chongqing model" was being held up as a paradigm for the nation, and Bo hoped to ride that paradigm into China's charmed circle of leadership.

Then the wheels fell off
It all started to wobble when former Chongqing police chief and Bo's right-hand man in his war on crime, Wang Lijun, turned up on February 6 at the US consulate in Sichuan province's capital city of Chengdu, located 338 kilometers northwest of Chongqing, apparently to request asylum - another disconcerting example of US involvement in China's affairs.

Bo had "reassigned" Wang to a post overseeing education and the environment a week prior to his appearance at the consulate after learning that Wang had gathered evidence implicating Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, in the alleged murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.

Wang did not receive asylum from US officials and was picked up by Chinese security agents after leaving the Chengdu consulate. He has been in custody ever since.

Bo now stands charged with "serious disciplinary violations" yet to be specified while Gu is under investigation for the murder of Heywood, who was reportedly responsible for transferring hundreds of millions of yuan into foreign accounts for Bo's family.

This money could have helped to finance the high-flying lifestyle and top-flight Western education of Bo's son, Bo Guagua, 24, who attended Britain's famous Harrow School and Oxford University and is currently a student at Harvard University in the US.

As Bo's salary as Chongqing party secretary was a modest 10,000 yuan (US$1,586) a month, the reported transfers have led observers to believe that Bo will be charged with corruption. Moreover, he may yet be found an accessory to murder.

Bo apparently also mounted a wiretapping campaign targeting Chinese officials, including the president, according to a recent New York Times report citing anonymous sources with party ties.

As the reports, rumors and allegations related to Bo and his family continue to fly and the Chongqing model takes on a new and far more sinister meaning, reformers are pouncing on the opportunity for political change. Indeed, the way the party has handled the Bo drama - the worst political scandal in China for decades - only strengthens their arguments for greater transparency and accountability.

Since Bo was removed from office on March 15, there has been no clear and full official account of the allegations against him.

Predictably, the dearth of information in such a sensational case has led to rampant speculation, rumors that quickly go viral on the Internet (including one particularly unsettling one warning of an imminent military coup) and lots of anonymous reports like the recent New York Times story.

It's nothing short of astonishing that the Wang/Bo scandal has been allowed to snowball now for nearly three months while party officials sit silently behind closed doors calculating what to do. The clumsy handling of the affair and the rumor-mongering engendered by this ineptitude have embarrassed Beijing in the eyes of the world and raised disturbing questions about party governance.

Those are questions reformers hope will be addressed ahead of the party congress later this year, and their calls for change are clearly resonating. That three leading state-run media outlets have recently published a series of commentaries urging political reform is a sure sign of that - and perhaps also a signal that the leadership, both outgoing and incoming, may have come to some sort of consensus on this issue.

Notably, however, those commentaries - in the party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, the official Xinhua News Agency and the China Youth Daily - make no mention of Western-style democracy. Instead, they are so general that it his hard to fathom what they mean by their pleas for a "restructuring" of China's political system.

A People's Daily article calls for "ensuring the people are the masters" of China's political fate but offers no suggestions about how to make this happen. Another People's Daily commentary trots out this bromide: "Reform has only one purpose, and that is to serve the people's interest."

The China Youth Daily invokes the words of former US president Abraham Lincoln in demanding political change that is "of the people, by the people and for the people" - whatever that may mean in China.

A Xinhua article uses more forceful language, promoting political reform as a way of "assaulting fortified positions" but, again, provides no specific plan or solutions.

Who knows where these vague but prominent and officially sanctioned calls for change will lead - or if they will lead anywhere at all. Perhaps they are simply appeasing sops to the reformist wing of the party, which will, come autumn, once again see its demands for a significant overhaul of the party's political structure come to naught.

The Chen case underscores the brutal, deep-seated corruption at the local level of party affairs, and the Bo scandal lays bare big problems at the top. Still, however, conservatives appear to hold sway in the party leadership, and they are resistant to any change that could undermine their power.

Let's remember that Hu became general secretary of the party in 2002 and president one year later amid great hopes and promising signs that he would be a liberal reformer.

A decade later, little has changed.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing56@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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