Bo Xilai

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PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 April, 2012, 12:00am


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Despite the media frenzy all over the world, the Bo Xilai affair may have opened a window of opportunity for Chinese leaders to build a consensus for launching serious political reforms. It has become clear that two critical aspects of the Chinese political system - central-local relations and decision-making at the top - need revamping. Top-down political reforms can no longer be postponed, as Premier Wen Jiabao unequivocally stated in his press conference in March. Unfortunately, he never explained how to do it.

While Communist Party theorists have long been arguing that 'incremental democratisation' is the only valid approach, the foundation of such an argument has been undermined by the chain of events triggered by Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun's unauthorised stay at the US consulate in Chengdu in early February.

Bo's dismissal and his wife's arrest are certainly not the end of the story. Beijing's handling of this affair has demonstrated more faults than merits of the existing decision-making system in China. The most obvious is the lack of political transparency at the top, which has backfired on the system.

However, it is true that the party leaders have avoided a 'hard landing' with some skilful piloting, dismissing Bo from his post first, stripping him of all his titles, followed by a criminal investigation.

But the method is a familiar one. A corruption charge is the standard instrument used to deal with political insubordination. Two top officials were brought down the same way, the former Beijing party secretary Chen Xitong, and the former Shanghai party secretary Chen Liangyu. This time, it is lucky for the leadership that there seems to have been a murder to justify such a move.

The fall of Bo and the two Chens have one thing in common: they were all Politburo members assigned to local posts. Historically, how to control local officials who possessed imperial lineage was always a problem. The Politburo is equivalent to the inner circle of the imperial household. Its members, if assigned a local administrative position, can easily overrule any opposition in their jurisdictions as no other party officials can match them in rank and prestige.

The real problem is the politburo system itself. This is a 'war cabinet' system inherited from the Russian Bolsheviks in 1917. Vladimir Lenin established the system to facilitate command and control during the October Revolution. But he was never comfortable with it.

What we see in the communist history of the 20th century is the disappearance of the normal party internal decision-making procedure and the rise of strongman politics. Under Joseph Stalin as well as Mao Zedong, the politburo was more decorative than functional, and they could dictate party policy and the fate of the other leaders.

Even under Deng Xiaoping's rule, the Politburo never functioned properly. Most important decisions were made in Deng's home with a coterie of party elders, the so-called 'Eight Immortals'. (Bo Xilai's father Bo Yibo was one of them; they were instrumental in deposing party leader Hu Yaobang.) Even though Deng never obtained the top title of the party, he was able to ease out three party leaders in his 17 years of de facto reign.

Strongman politics has been absent since Deng's departure and the Communist Party has somehow managed to return to a system of 'collective leadership'. But such a position remains fragile: if the party does not revive the pre-1917 decision-making mechanism, no one can be sure that strongman politics will not make a comeback.

Maintaining a war-cabinet system in peacetime does not reflect the Chinese reality of rapid economic growth and political opening. First of all, the party must deal with the collusion of power and money, another legacy of Deng, and the primary source of widespread official corruption and social unrest today, as the Bo Xilai affair clearly shows.

Moreover, China today really needs an effective national security system - ? la America's national security council - that functions beyond an interest-group culture. Its Politburo increasingly resembles a board representing different interest groups.

More importantly, the extreme secrecy of the system is beginning to exert a heavy pressure on the body politic. No member of the top leadership today, corrupt or clean, can be spared from becoming the target of wild speculation and public anger. They share a collective guilt for bringing China to this state. No scandal can escape public scrutiny any more in the internet age, and any spark may start a prairie fire.

It is certain that, with more political openness, an event like the Bo affair would not have created such a political earthquake, which has cranked up the rumour mill and destabilised the popular psychology.

There is, in short, no historical or logical reason for China in the 21st century to maintain a war-cabinet system inherited from an alien culture. The Communist Party remains crucial in promoting China's prosperity and stability, but its decision-making procedure is completely outdated.

Political reforms must start with a vision of phasing out the Politburo and, at the same time, establishing a solid national security system to protect China from external threats.

Once intra-party democracy is restored, pressure on the leadership would also ease. Instead of the 25 members of the Politburo, the party's Central Committee would bear the bulk of the pressure. And more work may get done: Premier Wen has admitted that it is increasingly difficult to implement decisions made by the top leadership.

From this perspective, the Bo affair has served to expose the deep flaws of China's domestic governing model, and may help the leadership strengthen its political will to identify and tackle the root of the problem and bring China to the next stage of its enterprise of national restoration.

Lanxin Xiang is professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva