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.
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.
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.
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"
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
Since Bo was removed from
office on March 15, there has been no clear and
full official account of the allegations against
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.
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
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.
article uses more forceful language, promoting
political reform as a way of "assaulting fortified
positions" but, again, provides no specific plan
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.
decade later, little has changed.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based
teacher and writer. He can be reached at[email protected]Follow him on Twitter:
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