China's Ides of March

2012-03-20Asia Times

It is the biggest scandal to hit China in nearly a decade, but it is much more than that. The fall of Bo Xilai, Communist Party chief of Chongqing (a megalopolis of more than 30 million inhabitants) and member of the Politburo, who was removed from office last Thursday - March 15 - could be the turning point in China's difficult road to political reform.

His removal occurred on the anniversary of the most important "political reform" of ancient Western civilization. On the Ides, the 15th, of March 44 BC, Julius Caesar was murdered in Rome, paving the way for the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire.

It is the end of Bo's rule in Chongqing and of the idea he touted, that China could still find inspiration of some sort from the bad old days of Red Guards and the Cultural Revolution. It is concrete evidence that China is really turning the page, as Bo's dismissal came just one day after Premier Wen Jiabao announced the necessity of political reforms.

In fact, in just a few days Hong Kong will experiment with some form of democratic elections, and as that city for decades represented China's ultimate model of economic reforms, it is not unlikely that it will also be its model for political reforms.

The Bo Xilai affair sheds light on the new political dynamic within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which in some ways marks a departure from the political struggles of the past.

The rise of Bo in the first place was a departure from the ordinary path of communist ascent. When he arrived in Chongqing five years ago, he seemed to have reached his pinnacle as a politician. Even his promotion from trade minister to head of Chongqing had been difficult, and each additional step, culminating with his ambition to get into the party's top leadership, the Standing Committee of the Politburo - the nine most powerful politicians in China - seemed impossible. Bo changed the situation, by launching the first political campaign in the history of post-revolution mainland China.

He attacked the mafia gangs that dominated the life of the metropolis, and returned to the "leftist" principles and egalitarian spirit of the Cultural Revolution (the movement launched by Mao Zedong from 1966 to 1976), and recruited and organized a number of intellectuals to advise him (see Bo Xilai focuses multiparty vision (, Apr 20, 2011). His initiatives were dangerous because they involved actions that had not been previously sanctioned by Beijing. But he had an anchor of safety because in China the conservative group is the "left", and it's hard to attack someone for conservative policies. Even more, he gained support from common people, something that, although not paramount, remains important in Chinese politics. Moreover, anti-mafia campaigns and addressing social inequalities were and are among principles advocated by Beijing.

But he gave them a new relevance, combining them into a kind of modern neo-Maoism, and in so doing he created the "Chongqing model" that at one point seemed destined to spread across the country like wildfire.

The model, however, also included elements that seemed bizarre considering the growth of China over the past 30 years. Private enterprises in Chongqing did not have an easy time - Bo preferred state enterprises and promoted competition between them. As a sign of the new climate, local television carried no commercials.

But the country's growth over the past three decades was driven by private enterprise. Limiting private opportunities in the medium and long terms would stifle China's development, an absolute strategic priority for the people and their leaders.

Also, limiting the development of private enterprises reduces opportunities for social advancement to a single channel: the bureaucracy, which dominates both the government and state enterprises. In the medium and long terms, this would have been catastrophic, because private enterprise is now also a form of social promotion. Many outstanding people, left out of the bureaucracy, would remain cut off and thus could stir up trouble.

In the short term, however, Bo's policies won popular support. In China, ordinary people accept the dominance of the state or its companies, but resent the arrogance of the new rich - those who made a fortune "somehow". Fighting corruption, the mafia, and the new rich became an attractive populist platform in a country with growing social differences and resentment to be fanned, but undermined the very basis of Chinese growth: a state that is small and interferes little in business.

Against this model stood Guangdong, the southern province that encouraged private enterprise and led by Bo's predecessor in Chongqing, Wang Yang. Wang encouraged a growth model that was more liberal, more pro-market, and opposed strong state intervention.

Thus the removal of Bo from Chongqing's government highlights an important aspect of economic policy, because his replacement is Zhang Dejiang, a deputy premier who was in charge of industrial policy and was the Guangdong party secretary before Wang.

In other words, Beijing is stating that the fight against the mafia and efforts to reduce social differences cannot undermine the market and the reforms that further it. On the contrary, the leadership believes that these should be expanded and supported. That is why Bo had to be eliminated, as the political figure who - along with the Chongqing model - had become a threat to the reforms themselves.

However, this decision brings China to a conundrum. Bo was popular, and pro-market political reforms are in some sense dictated against popular sentiment. That is, the liberal system of economy and politics beloved of the West is promulgated in China to some extent against the will of the people. In fact, if there were free elections in Chongqing and Bo could freely campaign, he probably would win.

China faces the problem of demagoguery through democracy, leading to the well-known trade-off in Western systems between short-term gains (in this case, a more equitable system) against long-term advantages (in this case, China's rapid development). This trade-off in the West, when it doesn't find a suitable compromise and balance, can stall political decision-making or fuel regressive policies. In the Chinese case, political reforms may in the short term run up against the will of the majority, as Chongqing already regrets Bo's departure, according to some local observers.

As in the case of Julius Caesar more than 2,000 years ago, the biggest danger is a conservative backlash. The death of Caesar provoked a new civil war in Rome and in the end didn't guarantee the survival of the republic, but instead brought Caesar's nephew, Augustus, to absolute power. In Rome the historical trend led to a dictatorial concentration of power, anticipated by the vicious civil wars before Augustus' rise. Today in China, and in the world, the trend is for liberal and democratic reforms. But this can't protect the country from political backlash, especially since democracy and a backward-looking, leftist populism are closely linked.

The next test for China's political reform - Hong Kong's chief-executive election next weekend - thus becomes crucial as an indication of how the mainland wants to move toward democracy. The selection of three candidates by Beijing can not only be a way to make sure the city government doesn't become the hotbed of opposition to Beijing, but also a way to curb populist tendencies that could undermine the local liberal and pluralistic atmosphere. That seems the ultimate irony, from a superficial perspective - liberal reforms could be imposed against popular, democratic will.

It could also be the lesson to draw from all of this. As economic reforms are creating greater social differences and conflicting interest groups with different agendas, these interests are trying to find a political expression. Although the situations in Chongqing and Hong Kong are different, they are both occasions of following some kind of experiment. As Sun Liping said, there were real issues raised in Chongqing, although the solution offered was deeply unsatisfactory.

This delicate moment of transition will test the maturity of the CCP. For the Chongqing affair to lead to more reform rather than less, the side that trumped the leftists should not gloat, and the leftists should not contest their defeat. A liberal system works only when an ethical agreement underpins it - all parties accept the rules of the game.

No political system is totally fair and square. In the 2000 US presidential election, Al Gore could have pressed ahead with his request to recast the Florida ballots, but this would have undermined America's political system. He gave up and conceded defeat because he cared for his country more than for his political career and because he realized he had too much to lose if he went ahead with his requests.

In a similar way, the Catholic Church differentiates between Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther in their approaches to the unity of the Church. Both were right, Catholic theologians now admit, but when pressed to bow to Rome, the first agreed the second rebelled. At the moment of controversy with the pope, Francis didn't want to break the unity of the Church and thus nuanced his positions; Luther didn't care to uphold the unity of the Church and made his ideas even stronger.

They were two different historical times and with different social and political forces behind them. But the first case, Catholic theologians believe, brought a huge renewal to the Church and Western society, while the second broke apart Western Christianity forever. The interest in and the significance of holding together a system can be more important than affirming one's righteousness.

On the other hand, as Sun Liping underscored, the victor has to recognize the true issues of the defeated agenda. Now, a break in its solidarity is the biggest danger for the CCP, and for a country beloved of stability. This is especially so if, as Wen announced, China is embarking on a difficult voyage in the uncharted waters of political reforms.

One is worried whether a unitary spirit exists in China's politics.

"When asked which of the other two candidates [for the post of chief executive in Hong Kong] he'd vote for, if forced to choose, Mr [Albert] Ho paused. 'Both are unacceptable,' he said. 'If I really have to make a choice [between them], that's like putting a gun to my head. And I'd say, 'Shoot.'"

Albert Ho, chairman of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, certainly knows he has no chance of victory in next Sunday's election for chief executive. So what is he suggesting, that Hong Kong people should kill themselves, or that he will commit suicide after the ballot? Either choice goes against the very grain of liberal democracy, which often picks not the best option but the least bad one, and accepts a loss to uphold the unity of the system.

China's political and economic transition seems too unruly and is occurring in a country too big and at same time too old (the thousands of years of civilization separated from the West) and too new (the true renewal of the country started only 30 years ago) for democracy to produce reliable outcomes. Democracy could devolve into demagoguery, as has happened many times in history. Then the ruling party has to act as the leader in a republic in the absence of popular democracy, to guide the country eventually to democracy by fostering a liberal society.

The task is huge and very delicate. Many things can go wrong. The choices of men and policy to be made at the next party congress in the autumn will show to China and the world whether this leadership is up to the mission.  (2012-03-20 Asia Times)


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