Bo Xilai

Leaders are still united, despite current difficulties

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 May, 2012, 12:00am


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For pessimists, China is in a bind, best summarised by a Chinese idiom about being 'beset with difficulties both at home and abroad'.

At home, social strife is escalating amid an economic slowdown, exemplified by blind activist Chen Guangcheng 's dash to the American embassy in Beijing and by the ensuing diplomatic tussle between the US and Chinese governments. Moreover, the fallout from the Bo Xilai scandal has continued unabated, with persistent and dire speculation that the scandal is causing an unprecedented schism in the nation's leadership, so much so that the Communist Party's 18th Congress - which approves the once-in-a-decade leadership change - could be delayed.

Abroad, tensions between Beijing and Manila have been running high as ships from China and the Philippines have been confronting each other for more than a month over disputed Huangyan Island. Mainland state media have carried strongly-worded editorials warning Manila that Beijing's patience is wearing thin and that it is preparing for the worst-case scenario.

In particular, Chinese nationalists are increasingly upset about Beijing's failure to force Manila to back down after more than a month, arguing that if Beijing cannot put Manila in its place, it will have far-reaching implications for China's territorial disputes with other countries. Complicating the situation further, many mainlanders have pointed fingers at Washington, believed to be 'the black hand' behind Manila's uncharacteristically tough stance.

Should people get seriously worried? There is little doubt that the Chinese leaders are faced with a potent combination of daunting domestic and international challenges rarely seen in recent decades. And it has come at the worst possible time, as those challenges have complicated the already intense jockeying for a new leadership line-up to be unveiled later this year.

But worries that the Chinese leadership is being thrown into disarray, or worse, facing a further split because of those developments, are overstated.

Following Beijing's decision to sack Bo from the Politburo last month, there has been rising speculation that the party is seriously split over how to deal with the charismatic politician, who became the flag-bearer of the country's rising leftists. This has already impacted the party's intense jockeying in the run-up to the congress.

Some analysts have said that Bo still enjoyed strong support in the central government and even the armed forces, partly because of his revolutionary pedigree. Others have even speculated that the congress could be delayed because different factions could not reach a consensus on the new leadership line-up.

But those people seem to have underestimated the resilience of the party leadership in tackling crises, if history can be any guide.

Since its founding in 1921, the power struggle among the party leadership has never stopped.

Since coming to power in 1949, the party has endured constant crises - a major one every seven or eight years, in the words of Mao Zedong - many of which concerned the life and death of the party. But the party has survived and still stands today, partly because of the deeply held tradition that everyone can debate and voice their own opinions, but once a decision is made, they must respect and support that decision regardless of whether they agree with it.

That is particularly true whenever there is a major political crisis involving top leaders. That appears to be what is happening in Bo's case. Bo was the highest-ranking party official to be sacked and investigated in more than a decade. But contrary to intense speculation pointing to a further split, his sacking has prompted the top government, party and military leaders to put aside their own differences for a united front, as they know that a further split is most likely to affect their own political and business interests.

Most of Bo's supporters are believed to have rallied behind the central government's decision to investigate him and his wife, although they may still have different views on the eventual punishments the two receive. For those supporters, the overriding priority is to ensure a smooth power transition, which is likely to take place this autumn, probably in October. This also explains why it is unlikely the leadership will postpone the congress until as late as next January, as some have speculated.

A significant delay would send a terrible message of disunity and would signal a bad start for the incoming new leadership. That would be the last thing they want to see.