Bo as the devil they know

2012-05-03Asia Times

BEIJING - While the Bo Xilai story is still unfolding, some of the political consequences are already becoming clear, but others have yet to fully surface.

Bo, the Chongqing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief toppled in March in the biggest political scandal since the demise of Marshall Lin Biao in 1971, has clearly opened the gates of political reform.

Just hours before the announcement of Bo's demotion, Premier Wen Jiabao said that political reforms were the only way out of current difficulties.

Only weeks later, on April 24, in a very unusual move, three leading Chinese media outlets - the People's Daily (the ruling CCP's mouthpiece), the official Xinhua news agency (run directly by the State Council), and the China Youth Daily (run by the Communist Youth League, a training base for China's future leaders) - flooded the news space with commentaries calling for political reform.

The message was that nobody should misunderstand it was for real, political reforms were happening in China.

It is as if Bo has removed a cork and now things are free to flow. We don't know what kind of political reform will unfold, and certainly China will not take on the American or British political system overnight, but at least there is hope that Beijing will move in the right direction and that the country will soon become more democratic.

In fact, there seems to be a clear understanding that Bo's issue stemmed from faults of the system that have to be addressed otherwise the challenge of controlling the next scandal to emerge will be even bigger.

However, a second, less obvious message of Bo's political demise and whole political adventure is the strength of the appeal of Maoism among the common people in China. In fact, that was part of Bo's political acumen: his ability to spot and use a strong reactionary trend among the common Chinese people. Bo is being accused of being a populist, yes, but it is even more interesting to understand what his populism was made of.

Populism is different in different countries. The fascist tradition was to fan up nationalist elements and direct their frustration and hatred against other factions or nations. They used - and use - a deep undercurrent in many cultures: the sense of being under siege from the outside and the sense that our problems are caused by others.

Bo's populism was made of elements plucked from the Cultural Revolution (the Red songs) and the early days of the communist rule (the swift, curt and violent methods for dealing with mafia gangs). People felt connected to them. This and the intensive ongoing propaganda campaign in Chongqing attest the depth of Maoist sentiments among common people.

Maoism, as also Russian communism proved in Moscow, is not an absolute doctrine simply forced down the people's throats at gunpoint. It is overly simplistic to think that just removing the gun will move everybody to embrace the golden rainbow of democracy.

Chongqing's experience ascertains the opposite: Maoism has become a reactionary idea in China, and people will try to go back to it if they can for many reasons, including looking for a sense of belonging. Maoist China is something that common people know, or believe they know, whereas the present confused and confusing total mish-mash of new ideas and new actions is a voyage into the unknown.

In the late 1990s, this reactionary instinct was present in the Falungong movement, which was then xenophobic, against modern science, naively millenarian, and had the support of senior officials in the security and military apparati. In many ways, Bo's Chongqing model came to express the same feelings: a wish to return to navigating in charted waters.

This feeling is normal and right, and possibly will be a recurring theme in China - and if so, then it is to be expected again in 10 years, and the opposite is what is strange and extremely innovative.

If China had been different, and if circumstances had not lead to Wang Lijun's flight (the Chongqing head of police ran to the US Consulate in Chengdu on February 6) and Neil Heywood's death (the English businessman was killed in Chongqing on November 15, 2011), Bo could have become leader of the party.

Then what China has been actually doing at least since the days of former president Jiang Zemin (1993 to 2003) is to promote innovative ideas to move China forward and make it developed and great - but these new ideas were not at all popular, and least of all populist.

This was the basic tenet of the theory of the Three Represents introduced by Jiang in 2000, that the CCP "represents the development trends of advanced productive forces; it represents the orientations of an advanced culture; it represents the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people of China".

The party should not represent all the people, but the most innovative part of it. This opens the issue of who decides what is the most innovative segment of the population, and the answer is simply practical: the one that works in pushing China's development forward. Again there is something unclear here: nobody knows for sure what will work in the future, but it is a theoretical very important step forward.

Current President Hu Jintao's theory of an harmonious society also goes in this direction. It recognizes there are differences among the people - those who want to move forward and those who want to go back - and thinks that these differences have to be met not with the old Marxist class struggle, but with the ancient Chinese concept of harmony: you are rich and I am poor, but let's not fight one another.

This has the appeal of referring to pre-communist China, and harks back to something that existed before the revolution - yet it is fuzzy, forgotten, and goes against the grain of Maoist China, still a vivid memory for most Chinese.

This creates the paradox of the present Bo affair. If China were to be fully democratic - one man, one vote - and Bo were to run with his Chongqing model against whoever embraces the harmonious society concept, Bo would very likely win. And after the victory, in the light of his recently revealed personal accounts, he would have turned China into some kind of fascist country. Then the way to democracy in China involves biding one's time and preventing the reemergence of reactionary forces that could push China back to communism or violent confrontation with foreigners.

Therefore, the whole Bo affair, as it is a move to democracy, may also be a warning that many common Chinese do not want to step into the future. They want another terrible and fascinating Mao to lead them. However, there are the systemic problems, highlighted by Bo's episode, and these must be addressed swiftly.

This creates a conundrum about the pace of reform: fast or slow?

Moreover, there is the behavior of foreigners to observe. The Americans played along with the Chinese leadership without embarrassing it by revealing Wang Lijun's testimony at the consulate. The British were confused and embarrassed by Heywood's death. Was he a spy of some kind, linking Bo to the British government through the recent revelations?

London is in the very embarrassing position of having nothing to say. If Heywood was a spy, it will not reveal that fact; if he wasn't, it cannot produce evidence he wasn't. In any case, if London denies the charges, Beijing will not believe it. The only way to be believed in Beijing is to say, yes, he was a spy. Yet in any case, London didn't react to this predicament indignantly or with a counter-attack against Beijing. London played along.

This not hostile attitude finds further support in the case of Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist who fled his home detention and sought refuge in the US Embassy in Beijing. The US is moving very cautiously about it, and does not try to exploit the case to embarrass China, although it can't forget its own constituency at home.

This further indicates that forces abroad are not the principle enemy of China, but as the Falungong and Bo Xilai's episodes prove, there are suppressed forces inside the leadership that need to be channeled and regulated. Otherwise they may create cyclical explosions.

In that instance, forces abroad may create immense troubles for China. Thus it should be important to understand the direction of political reforms in China and also the difficulties of Chinese society and its reactionary elements. Perhaps for all this an international committee should be established to follow and understand political reforms as well as the forces dragging China back.

In any case, on Wednesday US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton started her visit to China and these will be the big questions hanging over head, bigger than the issues of trade or military coordination already agreed to be discussed.

In fact, the political direction China will take could have massive influence on its military and trade, as they will clarify or not a very important element between states, one about the intentions of the other.  (2012-05-03 Asia Times)


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