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A Son Sets in the East

As the Chinese Communist Party prepares for another leadership transition, the most significant purge in over twenty years has sent the rumor mill spinning and the pundits (and editorial boards) desperately trying to outdo each other with predictions about China’s political and economic future. The imbroglio started on March 15 when a deputy of Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai tried to request asylum at the US consulate and claimed Bo wanted to kill him over his knowledge of corruption. The whole incident caused Bo, a member of the Politburo and the son of a storied revolutionary general, to lose his secretary post and the prospects of future advancement. In the days that followed rumors of attempted coups swirled around Beijing. Some commentators even warned that a second Cultural Revolution might be in the offing.1

The opaque political machinations in Beijing are confusing enough without people who have little idea what they’re talking about further muddying the waters. In fact, Bo was the one who had promoted a campaign to sing “red songs” and liked to use Revolution-type slogans for his political initiatives. In a speech that preceeded Bo’s fall from grace, outgoing Premier Wen Jiaobao called the Cultural Revolution one of China’s real “historical tragedies.” So while Bo’s purge may have been significant, it was more notable for the fact that China’s leadership is probably reaffirming the status quo rather than turning over the chessboard.

But don’t take our word for it. Some of the most clear and concise commentary on the incident has come from The Diplomat's China Power blog, where David Cohen writes that, far from being Mao-like political whim, “ditching Bo was clearly a consensus move, and everyone had good reason to support it.” Here’s a non-ideological take by AEI think-tanker Michael Auslin who says that the Party “remains firmly in power.” This Bloomberg article throws cold water on those wanting to turn the incident into a “good guys vs. bad guys” tale from which we are seeing spring the green shoots of reform, pointing out that Bo’s ideology was largely a cynical attempt to grab more power and prestige, and the “reformers” care about stability more than freedom. Canadian professor Wenran Jiang also claims that the situation is more complex than some are making it out to be, but says that Bo’s leadership “initiatives and style” still “have a huge following.” The Jamestown Foundation’s Willy Wo-Lap Lam tells those looking for signs that political reform is coming to Beijing: “the chances that the tattered threads of political liberalization may be picked up again seem abysmally low.”

And what of the economic and geopolitical effects? No doubt the strains of China’s wealth gap and internal ethnic divisions, not to mention an emerging real-estate bubble, have the potential to halt the rise of the Middle Kingdom, though Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times sees the People’s Republic overcoming almost any scenario in their rise to global superpower. And as for their foreign policy, the Chinese seem to have backed off their confrontational stances after their neighbors began strengthening ties with America, as detailed in Foreign Affairs. And all those hopeful that democracy will come to Beijing any time soon might do well to remember that democracies, especially new ones, are even more prone to war than their authoritarian counterparts.2


  1. It’s times like these when we wish Niall Ferguson would stick to his own “specialty,” namely, history and the West. Gordon Chang, you have no excuse. 

  2. "Ha! The Democratic Peace holds," you say? Need we remind you of the rather large and undemocratic neighbor to China’s north with which it shares a very long border? 

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