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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 Xi.

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 shameful conduct.

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 authoritarian regime.

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 Jintao era.

(C. Uday Bhaskar is a leading Indian strategic analyst. He can be contacted cudayb@gmail.com . This article first appeared in SOUTH ASIA MONITOR on September 30, 2012. )
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