As senior leaders are purged and retired provincial officials publicly call for the removal of politburo members, it has become clear China is at a crossroads. The country’s future no longer looks to be determined by its hugely successful economy, instead, its murky and fractured politics are now driving its fate.
One need look no further than the ongoing power struggle in the run-up to this autumn’s planned leadership changes, or official figures showing that rural protests have been increasing at the same rate as China’s GDP. The sudden downfall of former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai (薄熙來) — and the call from Yunnan Province for the removal of the two politburo members closest to him — is one example of the no-holds-barred infighting now taking place in Beijing. Indeed, the internecine squabbles are said to be so vicious that there have been rumors, denied by the regime, that the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) congress at which a new president and prime minister are to be anointed this autumn might be postponed.
The party’s abrupt vilification of Bo, after lauding him for his leadership in Chongqing, has fueled public cynicism over his orchestrated downfall and laid bare the leadership’s thin ideological core. If China is to preserve its gains in global stature, it must avoid a political hard landing. For the time being, at least five different scenarios are conceivable:
Re-equilibration: The CCP protects its legitimacy, keeps the military subordinate and manages to pop a lid on widespread dissent. In other words, the status quo prevails for the foreseeable future. This is the least likely scenario given deepening internal fault-lines and mounting discontent.
Implosion: The likelihood of political disintegration, economic collapse and social disorder may be no higher than that of re-equilibration. The government’s fixation on weiwen (維穩), or “maintenance of stability,” has resulted in China becoming the world’s only important nation whose official internal security budget outweighs its official national defense budget.
This underscores the extent to which authorities have to carry out internal repression to perpetuate one-party rule and maintain control over restive ethnic-minority homelands that make up more than 60 percent of China’s landmass. However, it might also explain why one self-immolation in Tunisia helped kindle the Arab Spring, whereas about three dozen self-immolations by Tibetan monks and nuns have failed to ignite a similar popular movement against the Chinese state.
The Soviet Union imploded because the party was the state, and vice versa. China, by contrast, has established strong institutional capacity, a multi-tiered federal structure, a tradition of civilian leadership turnover every 10 years and a well-oiled, sophisticated security apparatus. Thus, China’s government can pursue a policy of wai song nei jin (外鬆內緊) — relaxed on the outside, vigilant internally.
Guided reform: A process of gradual political change begins, in keeping with outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s (溫家寶) warning that without “urgent” reforms, China risks turmoil and disruption of economic growth. Can China emulate the recent example of neighboring Myanmar, which has initiated significant, if still tenuous, political reforms?
The political heirs of the country’s communist revolutionaries — the third-generation leaders that are taking over the reins of power in China — may possess a strong pedigree, but they are also limited by it. These so-called “princelings” are trapped in the same political culture that led to the death of millions of Chinese and the continuing repression of opponents (real or imagined). They do not look like political reformers in the slightest.