New guard, new broom in China?

While China's leaders-elect are a sure thing as political transition takes place, the environment they step into is anything but certain. A once unthinkable level of scrutiny awaits them.

No sooner has the dust settled on the US presidential election than China begins its Party Congress on Thursday to produce its new leadership team. Xi Jinping is widely tipped to be China’s new president and Li Keqiang its new premier.

But the selection of the new leadership team in China has been accompanied by the extraordinary trial of former party chief of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, and his expulsion from the Communist Party, amid revelations of high level corruption, his wife’s conviction of the murder of a family confidant, Englishman Neil Heywood, and the arrest and trial of former police chief, political refugee turned informant, Wang Lijun.

More recently, there have been revelations of the wealth of China’s current leaders, such as Premier Wen Jiabao and soon-to-be-president Xi Jinping. There is nothing that should automatically be construed as sinister about Wen’s or Xi’s wealth, a register of which appears to have been put together by foreign and Chinese journalists from publicly available sources, except of course the failure to have been routinely transparent about it for reasons that impact on political trust in the relationship between political power and using the instruments of the state for personal or family gain.

The significance of these developments is in what they reveal about transition in the Chinese political system. In a new book on the Bo affair, Australian journalist, John Garnaut, describes the Party’s 18th National Congress as ‘the biggest leadership transition in decades’ and observes that ‘China’s rulers are finding it increasingly difficult to keep their poisonous internal divisions behind closed doors’.

Like it or not -- and the suppression of the New York Times website due to its report of the Wen fortunes suggests that there is some discomfort in Beijing with these new circumstances -- the highest political games in China are unlikely to be played in quite the same way again because it will be less and less easy to keep the players and their stakes as tightly under wraps as they have been in the past. ‘Bo Xilai’s breathtaking fall from grace is an extraordinary tale of excess, murder, defection, political purges and ideological clashes going back to Mao himself, as the princeling sons of the revolutionary heroes ascend to control of the Party’, Garnaut’s book suggests. ‘Bo’s stellar rise through the ranks troubled his more reformist peers, as he revived "anti-capitalist roader” sentiment, even while his family and associates enjoyed the more open economy’s opportunities’.

His wife’s conviction for murder exposed the corruption and brutality of Bo’s outwardly successful administration of the massive city of Chongqing and ultimately led to his downfall. This glimpse into the very personal power struggles within the Chinese Communist Party exposes the myth of the unified one-party state, Garnaut suggests.

But is the Bo affair a one-off episode, that can be air-brushed from the history of China’s development, or will it have more profound significance for the future structure of the Chinese political system? Will it set the stage for a new political order, one that is more open and in which there is more contestability, as Premier Wen Jiabao and others have advocated?

Maybe it is too soon to answer these questions with confidence. But Cheng Li from Brookings is in no doubt that putting Bo Xilai through the public legal process rather than handling the matter internally is ‘an outstanding result for political reform in China’. The decision to bring the criminal conduct of this charismatic and demagogic leader at least partially out into the open he also sees as a testament to unity among the Chinese leadership -- not evidence of a split and ‘an important step toward gaining public confidence in political reforms and the rule of law’.

As Li points out, the ‘Bo Xilai case has revealed many of the flaws in the Chinese political system. It has also served as a wake-up call for the party: more systematic institutional measures are needed to deal with corruption, introduce intra-party democracy and demonstrate a real commitment to the rule of law’. The leadership also needs to eventually allow for an open and independent media although there is clearly resistance to accepting inevitable weakening of control over the new media. As wild commentary in and outside China about the recent absence of Xi Jinping from public view underscored, ‘the more the state restricts the media, the more sensationalist the rumour-mill becomes’.

The big questions of political reform involve choices that are clearly more urgent than many have been prepared to acknowledge publicly until now. Li believes that the party’s handling of Bo’s case gives hope that things are moving in the right direction. Hopefully they will not be thrown off course by exposure to wider scrutiny of the personal circumstances and assets of the leadership that is already in train. Indeed, one of the first reform initiatives that Xi Jinping might usefully and simply take on assumption of office would be to open a register of assets of the leadership team and other senior officials (and their families) and establish a code that governs the management of those assets by political leaders while in office. This would be a huge and confidence-building step forward, perhaps hard to embrace for some, but a profoundly important reform.

As Li concludes, time will tell whether Bo’s landmark trial can provide the Chinese Communist Party leadership with the confidence to pursue bold and genuine political reforms and arrest the ebb in the confidence of the Chinese public in the current political system. But now is the moment.

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum where this article originally appeared. Republished with permission.

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