BEYOND BO XILAI: CHINA PREPARES FOR LEADERSHIP CHANGE
Author : C.Uday Bhaskar
The long drawn-out, high-visibility,
murder-corruption-sex scandal involving one of China’s top political
leaders – Bo Xilai – has come to an end with the Chinese communist apex,
led by outgoing President Hu Jintao, announcing the expulsion from the
party of the disgraced Bo.
Criminal charges will now be pressed against the former “boss” of
Chongqing -- a city that Bo and his wife Gu Kailali, accused of
murdering a British business associate – ran like a personal kingdom
with Maoist characteristics.
This decision brings the curtain down on the Bo case – at least in the
public domain –and paves the way for the once-in-a-decade top leadership
transition, wherein President Hu Jintao will step down and hand over
the reins of the Chinese Communist Party to Vice President Xi Jinping.
Finally, Beijing has also announced that the 18th Party Congress will
now begin on November 8 – and formalise the change of guard from Hu to
Internal developments in China – whether it is the opaque and intense
power struggle in Beijing or the state of the world’s number two economy
and related socio-economic indicators -- are critical for regional
stability and have a bearing on the larger global strategic environment.
Ever since the days of Chairman Mao, the traditionalists and insular
conservatives -- as represented by party hardliners in Beijing -- and
the more liberal and outward looking ideologues – that later became
associated with Shanghai -- have engaged in intense contestation for
power, with blood on the floor at the end of the secretive,
behind-closed-doors power struggle. Top leaders have dramatically fallen
from power, some have died in mysterious plane crashes and others have
been implicated in corruption charges or had family members accused of
In recent years, during the consolidation of the Hu Jintao era, a former
mayor of Beijing, Chen Xitong, and a powerful party secretary in
Shanghai, Chen Liangyu, were both accused of high corruption and sent to
prison in 2007. China watchers aver that no high profile criminal case
involving a political leader can be divorced from the continuous power
struggle that goes on in the very complex lattice of the Chinese
Communist party where the stakes are high and retribution is ruthless.
The internal dynamic as derived from the Bo Xilai case would suggest
that some kind of consensus has emerged among the factions -- given that
Bo has many staunch supporters -- and that the party is agreed upon the
closure of the case, presumably before November 8. The Hu Jintao team
is expected to hand over power totally by end-November and a total
revamp of the top leadership positions that will reflect the Xi Jinping
era is expected.
The reason for the region and India in particular to be alert to these
developments stem from the manner in which the internal power struggle
in Beijing has impacted China’s foreign and security policies in the
past. Many experts maintain that the October 1962 war, where Mao decided
to teach India and Nehru a “lesson”, was driven to a large extent by
the conservatives versus liberal’s power struggle within the Chinese
Communist Party at the time.
Currently, China is passing through a complex and uncertain phase which
began after the successful culmination of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and
the “peaceful rise” euphoria. Over the last four years, it appears that
Beijing under Hu Jintao has squandered valuable political credibility
and growing diplomatic acceptability by way of its high-handed actions
apropos the immediate neighbourhood. The ASEAN nations have become chary
after the South China Sea muscle-flexing by Beijing and currently China
is engaged in a shrill island dispute with Japan. Relations with the
U.S. remain strained over the American “pivot” and the global turbulence
– whether Af-Pak or Syria -- confounds Beijing.
The internal economic situation is gloomy and the stimulus sought to be
provided by the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao team remains effete. Industrial
unrest is simmering and the protests of September 23 in the township of
Taiyuan in north China is illustrative.
Under the circumstances, prudence would suggest that Beijing will seek
to ensure that its relations with its largest neighbour are stable and
peaceful – an objective that Delhi also seeks.
It is pertinent to note that the U.S. Presidential election will be held
on November 6 and the Chinese transition Congress will take place two
days later – on November 8. Over the next decade, China’s two most
critical bilaterals will be with the U.S. and India.
While major foreign policy changes are unlikely in either the U.S. or
China during leadership transition, pandering to the domestic
constituency is a Pavlovian reflex, be it a democracy or an
Playing the nationalist card and projecting an image of the “tough”
leader is part of the media- and cyber-dominated packaging that
accompanies election to high-office. China’s cyberspace and the netizens
– the millions of Chinese bloggers and social media enthusiasts – have
become a potent constituency.
One hopes that the Hu-Xi transition after the bloodletting in the Bo
Xilai case is relatively smooth and that China is able to recover the
equipoise that seems to have eluded it in the last phase of the Hu
(C. Uday Bhaskar is a leading Indian strategic analyst. He can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org . This article first appeared in SOUTH ASIA MONITOR on September 30, 2012. )