Bo Xilai and the Future of China
Eric X. Li is a venture capitalist in Shanghai.
“All is not well in the People’s Republic.” So proclaim China-watching Hamlets around the world. They seem to have ample evidence. Six months before the 18th congress of the Chinese Communist Party when a major transition of leadership is to take place, a political earthquake is riveting the nation.
Bo Xilai, one of China’s most prominent leaders, a member of the Politburo and son of one of the founding fathers of modern China, was removed from his position as party secretary of Chongqing. The actual circumstances that led to Bo’s fall, whether results of power struggle or illegal conduct, are shrouded in secrecy; his ultimate fate remains in limbo—he has so far kept his membership on the Politburo. Yet, at this stage, speculating about Bo’s downfall or future is less productive than understanding the two ideological forces that form the political context in which the Bo incident could be at risk of becoming a perfect storm. So far, neither has gained dominance. But if one of them should occupy the center stage of Chinese politics, the consequences for China and the world would be disastrous.
Two extreme ideological forces have been dismayed by China’s tremendous achievements since Deng Xiaoping launched his reform. On one side are the leftists who believe China has lost its socialist way in its head-long pursuit of market economics and want the nation to go back to its past of a completely state-owned economy and dogmatic Leninist rule. On the other side are the liberals who just cannot live with the fact that China is succeeding without multi-party elections and a Bill of Rights. The noises they are amplifying seem, at the moment, to be deflecting our attention from the extraordinary progress China has gained in the last three decades and the underlying consensus that made it possible.
The leftists are in tune with the general sentiments of the Chinese public in its desire for political stability and equality. An abundance of polling data show the Communist Party enjoys a high level of support among the Chinese people for its remarkable performance. Its meritocratic governance has earned substantial admiration for its leadership. During the much reported protests in Wukan, the highest banner held up by the rebelling villagers read, “Long Live the Chinese Communist Party!’
Yet, a virulent strand of populism infests their thinking. They seem to be completely blind to the unprecedented accomplishments of market-oriented reforms in recent decades and blame the byproducts of rapid economic development, such as corruption and the wealth gap, on the market economy itself. It matters little to them that even the worst-off in today’s China are better off than they were a generation ago. The leftists have erroneously interpreted Bo’s policies in Chongqing as a wholesale return to the Leninist past. His apparent downfall has enraged them as they see it as an ultimate betrayal by the Party.
The liberals are no less pathetic. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, they have advocated the idea that no country can succeed without multi-party elections and human rights. Year after year, they have predicted the imminent collapse of China. Year after year, China has continued to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, its economy vaulting to the second largest in the world and its people living in prosperity unprecedented in history.
The economists within the liberal ranks are in sync with the reality that market economics forms the underlying foundation of China’s success. Yet, their economic position has been hijacked by political ideologues who insist on linking market economics to the political system of liberal democracy. They live in an ideological vacuum in which the market cannot function without voting. They are completely blind to the fact that a most vibrant market economy has been growing leaps and bounds under one-party rule. These liberals are pre-maturely celebrating Bo’s removal as a precursor to a liberal democratic revolution or at least a “peaceful evolution” prescribed by John Foster Dulles for the former Soviet Union. Through their euphoric celebrations of Bo’s demise, it seems that they are seeking to will their wish into reality.
There is only one thing amiss from the loud pronouncements being made in the international media and Internet chat rooms by both sides: Vox Populi. In the past three decades, a powerful consensus within Chinese society has been forged: Continuous economic reforms that promote market forces is the only path that will deliver prosperity to the Chinese people; political stability grounded in one-party rule is the only guarantor against extreme populism and national disintegration; a continuously reforming and meritocratic Communist Party is the most viable political organization that can lead the nation in its renaissance. China’s political system may not be ideal, but it is best among all realistic alternatives.
On the eve of Bo’s removal, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao spoke to reporters at the end of the National People’s Congress. With the mentioning of Cultural Revolution and political reform, his words stirred up sensational eruptions in international newspapers and online forums. But of course, such speculation is widely off the mark. Any sensible person could see that, under the current political structure and social conditions, it is nearly impossible for China to return to the Cultural Revolution. The Prime Minister’s reference to it actually reflects a widely shared fear of chaos resulting from a potential subversion of the current system. The Chinese term is zheteng—ideological struggles that risk overturning the ship. As to political reform, the Prime Minister said nothing of the sort. He pointedly said “political structural reform”. The word structural, in the lexicon of Chinese politics, means reforms that make the current system work better, not fundamentally changing it.
In this highly political season, an unexpected political drama has intensified an ideological confrontation between two extreme ends of China’s political spectrum. Their voices are loud. Will their tempest be allowed to disrupt China’s path? If so, catastrophic consequences would ensue: another Cultural Revolution could indeed be possible with disastrous chaos worse than those that befell post-Soviet Russia. In such a scenario China, instead of being the growth engine of the world, will become its greatest burden. But this needs not be. In all likelihood, talks of a pending political implosion in Beijing are greatly exaggerated. The quiet and steady currents of China’s mainstream, along with the common sensibility of its leadership, will almost certainly continue to guide China on its path of pragmatism and moderation. The tide of history favors the large center. And the tide of history shall prevail.