Panic at the top
As the 18th Communist Party congress fast approaches, the leadership in Beijing is trying to do everything possible to stimulate popular enthusiasm and public spirit. But nothing seems to be working. The Bo Xilai affair continues to haunt the process of the upcoming power transition.
Few party members deny that this affair has done equal, if not more, damage to the image of the Communist Party as the 1989 Tiananmen affair. But in 1989 the students merely protested against price inflation and the corruption of some officials, which triggered panicky reaction from Deng Xiaoping . Now the consensus is that sending military troops to suppress a student protest is one of the biggest mistakes the party had ever committed.
Today, the Bo Xilai affair has exposed a pseudo-socialist system rotten to the core, since official corruption through the power-money marriage has become so ostentatious and widespread that the population has begun to compare the communist regime directly with the Kuomintang regime under General Chiang Kai-shek before 1949.
One popular story concerns Madam Chiang. In 1946, General George Marshall - president Harry Truman's personal envoy, chosen to mediate a peaceful solution between the communists and the KMT - tried to persuade Madam Chiang to urge her husband to eliminate official corruption and launch serious democratic reforms. Marshall used the Chinese communists as a positive example, as the latter were propagating 'new democracy' in China at the time. Madam Chiang reportedly replied: 'The problem is, the communists have not tasted power yet. If they do, they will behave the same.' Madam Chiang is considered prophetic.
Another story concerns a book about the origins of the French Revolution of 1789, written by the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, and widely circulated among members of the top leadership. Widespread psychological insecurity about the country's future and the official obsession with 'pre-revolutionary' conditions - reflected by social instability - seem to converge. They point to a simple consensus that serious political reforms can no longer be postponed.
The problem is, interest-group politics has become deeply entrenched today, as happened with the Chiang Kai-shek regime in the 1940s. Few inside and outside of the communist party have confidence that political reforms can work without cracking the party itself.
Since everyone recognises the existence of pre-revolutionary signs, the question is how to prevent an eruption.
There are two schools of thought on this. On the one hand, those about to retire from the leadership argue that a 'stable' power transition should take absolute priority this year. On the other, many among the 'fifth generation' elite believe that a major political shake-up is necessary for tackling the root of the problem. But a 'trust deficit' between the party and the people has grown so big that either approach could result in enormous political risk.
If the leadership does not deal with corruption and interest-group politics, the state will be ruined, but if the party tackles the issue seriously, it will be destroyed. This unbearable psychological dilemma makes the party leaders panicky.
The external conditions for China do not help either. For the first time since economic reform started in 1978, complacency about national security and peaceful existence is dissipating. Ten years ago, when President Hu Jintao first proposed the concepts of a 'harmonious world' and 'peaceful rise', the world responded with enthusiasm. Today, the China Threat theme returns with a vengeance.
It is true that the US is largely responsible for the worsening geopolitical condition of China, because it has determined that China is the only challenge to its 'second to none' status in the world and has designed and executed a brilliant diplomatic campaign to rally support for its new cold war strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. But Chinese missteps have also contributed to this apparent diplomatic isolation. The nationalistic attitude with neighbouring countries over disputed territories and vehement refusal to engage in multilateral diplomacy over maritime problems in the South China Sea do not help improve China's image or inspire confidence in countries outside China to take its 'peaceful rise' seriously.
But, ultimately, a harmonious world depends upon a harmonious society at home. This year, therefore, presents fundamental challenges to the Chinese leadership. A game-changing moment has arrived: either the party finds a way to rejuvenate itself in order to lead the people towards sustained economic prosperity and social stability, or it has to prepare for a hard-landing in the near future.
If the 18th Communist Party congress turns out to be a new game of interest-group politics, the leadership can hardly avoid a deepening crisis both at home and abroad. Time is in fact running out rapidly.
Lanxin Xiang is professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva