Which way forward?
At the approach of dusk, rumours come to life in the capital city and multiply madly. For days, China's microblog universe was aflutter with news that 'something big is about to happen', not unlike the folk stories that became popular in the public squares of old, just as a dynasty was about to change hands. In sociological analysis, this is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. One such prophecy has partly come true: Wang Lijun's mysterious visit to the US consulate in Chengdu was indeed followed by 'something big', the rather dramatic downfall of his boss, Bo Xilai.
Here's the drama: when Bo was getting ready to vote on the revised Criminal Procedure Law at the annual meetings of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing, the person who would announce Bo's removal as Chongqing party secretary was on his way to the southwestern municipality. As benign legislative proposals and women delegates' pretty cheongsams were on parade, political duels were being fought behind the scenes. Like the capture of the Gang of Four, the crackdown on the Tiananmen democracy movement and other political game changers, it will probably be years before we know what occurred in Zhongnanhai in those few days.
Where's Bo now and what will happen to him? Has he lost power for good? If he has not been locked up in Qincheng Prison, will he still be able to make a comeback? The official story making the rounds on the internet is that Wang, the police chief, took the great risk of turning to the US consulate because Bo threatened him over a police investigation into Bo's family. But this story leaves many unanswered questions. Logic dictates - and many real-life examples show - that trying to destroy one's trusted subordinate leads only to self-destruction; Bo could not have failed to understand this. Even so, the story continues to circulate, feeding into the self-fulfilling prophecy.
The central government, the masters of political power play, will not let any potentially damaging rumour circulate freely. No doubt the internet and other media will soon be subject to even tighter control.
The authorities want to present a united front in the run-up to the 18th party congress later this year. To this end, Bo's sacking is a useful example: the other regions that have not been similarly disciplined will be quick to fall in line. Even Wang Yang , the Guangdong party secretary who is so proud of his innovative thinking, took care to stress at the meetings in Beijing that the Wukan elections were 'nothing new'. He understands very well that, after the ruin of his supposed rival, his 'Guangdong model' has lost its reason for being. There needs only be one model now: the China model.
We're not quite there yet, judging by the ferocity of the online speculation; party unity is still a work in progress. The fiercest battles are probably over, and the power players mostly know that stability is in their own interests. But surprises may still spring up.
Here's one scenario: dirt about Chongqing's anti-triad campaign comes to light, and the Bo government is put through a more thorough disciplinary action. Or, perhaps, Bo the princeling could still stage a comeback. A public raised on a TV diet of dramas about palace infighting is eager for more; their imagination is running wild.
But, so what if any or all of these rumours are true? If Bo remained influential, would this be a threat to democratic development? Because Bo has been sacked, is Premier Wen Jiabao's pledge of political reform more likely now to be fulfilled?
If such palace intrigues could bring about democracy, China would have been democratic a long time ago. History is full of power struggles far more brutal than the one we see now. Some led to more room for development; others shrank the political space further. Either way, the result was almost always more authoritarian government.
People don't realise that the looser reins on public debate that we benefited from were one result of the intense political competition. People who support democracy should work towards exposing these behind-the-scenes power struggles, not hope for one party to wipe out another. A democracy demands robust competition in the open, not the annihilation of a politician orchestrated in secret.
On a related note: the people who hold out hopes for the premier's promise should also appreciate that a democracy asks that its people play the role of critics, rather than cheerleaders. And democratic government does not happen overnight; it is a goal we work towards.
Self-fulfilling prophecies do happen from time to time. But we need to ask ourselves: what do we expect to see? The millennium-old cycle of upheavals in palace politics, or a functioning modern democracy?
Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese