TT: I wanted to ask about China’s next leadership, including Xi Jinping (習近平) and his associates. Since the Internet is becoming a problem that is increasingly out of the government’s control, how do you think the next administration will respond to that?
PL: I don’t think there is any difference to speak of between Xi Jinping and Hu Jintao (胡錦濤). They are both functionaries. Their function is to serve the power elite of which they are a part, but it’s wrong to view either of them as anything like Mao Zedong (毛澤東) or Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平). Those days are gone. They are functionaries that take turns being party secretary. Their duty is to maintain the power and the privilege of that group. They don’t have any independent policies or strong ideas or so on.
I don’t know Xi Jinping, but my impression is that he is completely mediocre as an example of a person. He is, after all, the son of a famous revolutionary comrade of Mao Zedong. That’s why he’s there. It’s not because of meritocracy. I don’t think he will try and I don’t think he has the resources to try anything different from what the current regime is doing.
The reason why the [CPP’s 18th National Congress] in the fall is interesting is not because we can anticipate some policy changes, but because it is a laboratory for the infighting that goes on in the top to see whose person gets the top spot, and the second spot, and the third spot. That has been going on for at least a year now. The Bo Xilai scandal is only one part of it.
The instability that is right under the surface at the top is something that most of the world doesn’t adequately question or appreciate. I think Hu Jintao’s mentality is to try to keep the lid on so that nothing disastrous happens on his watch. He can hand the baton to Xi Jiping in the fall and then Xi Jiping tries to cope. There is instability right now and there will be through the fall. We don’t even know if Xi Jiping will be officially anointed in the way that the current leaders want.
TT: What is popular opinion among the Chinese people about the Gu Kailai (谷開來) case? As we discussed, the Internet firewall is permeable and there is a lot under the surface of that particular case. It’s obvious to anyone. So what has the discussion among the public been?
PL: That’s a huge question. My impression is that the details of the complexity of the Gu Kailai story are only known to a minority of the people on the Internet in China. That is, what you and I have been talking about with corruption and top-level power being the real issues, only Chinese dissidents and maybe — I’m just guessing now — 10 to 20 percent of netizens are discussing things at that level.
In fact, a lot of commentary takes the official Xinhua News Agency as “the story,” quote unquote. They are still very critical of it, but those people are raising questions like “Why would she resort to murder just because she was afraid Neil Heywood would kidnap her little boy? Why would she invite him all the way to Sichuan in order to do it? Could it be that it was really cyanide? Maybe there was another poison.”
They are very skeptical and very few believe the story, but they are poking holes in it as a murder mystery and not discussing those deeper questions of corruption and power struggles in the background.