The severe in-fighting for top posts at the highest echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) erupted into public glare in early February 2012, severely denting the Party’s image. The absence of veteran leaders of pre-eminence with adequate stature and unchallenged authority got accentuated. More significantly, the events provide a glimpse of the tense, vicious struggles underway and highlight the fragility of China’s power structure.
Bloodlines of candidates, patron-protégé linkages, mentor-mishu connections and rancorous relationships that had lain apparently dormant for decades, are all at play. The main issues are not ideology or pace of reform, but the ambition of the large numbers of cadres aspiring for the unusually numerous vacancies that are to become available at the 18th Party Congress this October. For some this Congress is the last chance for promotion before the age criteria, announced at the 17th Party Congress, compels them to retire at 67 years.
Sixty-two-year old Bo Xilai, the first and possibly most prominent victim of this leadership struggle, was a candidate for the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), China’s highest and most powerful body. His credentials were solid. He came of ‘Red’ lineage and was the son of Bo Yibo, one of so-called ‘Eight Immortals’. He had built an independent support base and had a track record of proven competence. He impressed foreigners — especially Americans — with his memory, grasp of the subject and fluency in English. In the Municipality of Chongqing he smashed underground triads and mafia, boosted economic growth to 16.4 per cent, reduced income disparities and eased the restrictive hukou system to allow for freer movement of rural folk to urban areas. Even China’s ‘liberal economists’, like Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s doctoral adviser Sun Liping, recently applauded Bo Xilai’s performance. Bo Xilai had additionally tapped in to the reservoir of pro-Mao sentiment to enhance his appeal. Conscious that he had missed elevation to the PBSC at the last congress by a very slender margin, this time Bo Xilai was leaving nothing to chance.
He had powerful supporters in the Party. They included China’s powerful security czar, Zhou Yongkang, PBSC member in charge of Propaganda, Li Changchun, and China’s former President Jiang Zemin. At least six of the nine PBSC members attended the lavish celebrations for the Party’s 90th founding anniversary organised by Bo Xilai in Chongqing. Clearly Bo Xilai was viewed as upward mobile and having a very good chance to enter the PBSC. Last year Vice President Xi Jinping had identified Bo Xilai as earmarked for higher rank.
Bo Xilai similarly had considerable influence within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The director of the PLA’s General Political Department (GPD), General Li Jinai, had attended the Party’s 90th founding anniversary celebrations in Chongqing. The political commissar of the Second Artillery Zhang Haiyang is a childhood friend. Bo Xilai had nurtured relations with the 14th Army, founded by his father, and assiduously cultivated relations with the Chengdu Military Region — deployed across India. When China’s President and chairman of the powerful Military Commission, Hu Jintao, was in Hawaii on November 10, 2011, to attend the APEC Summit, Bo Xilai staged a large ‘defense mobilisation’ military exercise in Chongqing where he invited defense minister Liang Guanglie and other southwestern Party and military leaders.
Though Bo Xilai built a wide support base, his brash style breached the low-key style that the Party approved and attracted adverse attention. His independent base was viewed as a potential alternate power centre, which could threaten the Party’s cohesion and unity. It was a source of serious discomfiture to Party general secretary and China’s President Hu Jintao and Vice President Xi Jinping. Bo Xilai had to be neutralised.
Moves to prevent Bo Xilai’s entry to the PBSC were carefully planned. The vice mayor in charge of public security, Wang Lijun, was manipulated to investigate Bo Xilai so that he could be embarrassed into giving up the race. But Wang Lijun strayed from the script and made an abortive attempt to defect to the US. This action sealed Wang Lijun’s fate and stunned the Party. China’s President Hu Jintao labeled Wang Lijun a ‘traitor’.
Despite the serious tussle underway in the Party’s top echelons on what punishment was to be meted out to Bo Xilai, there was unanimity that Party unity was paramount. The Party’s core united around the Party Centre and Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao received support to dismiss Bo Xilai from the Politburo (PB) and CC.
Xi Jinping wrote a lengthy article in the Party journal Seeking Truth on March 16, signalling that Hu Jintao had the upper hand. After weeks of protracted wrangling, proceedings were initiated on April 10, to dismiss Bo Xilai from the CC. The following day an editorial in the authoritative People’s Daily, warned that “China is a socialist country under the rule of law. The dignity of its laws and authority cannot be damaged.” It added “Regardless of an individual’s stature, anyone who breaks the law will be punished. There is no preferential treatment in the eyes of the law.” The Party’s message was blunt: no threat to the CCP’s cohesion, unity and primacy would be tolerated.
The Party now moved swiftly to contain damage and diminish Bo Xilai’s popularity by putting out a steady stream of stories about his and his wife’s corruption. Its Propaganda Department swung into action and curtailed the ‘Red’ programmes started by Bo Xilai in February 2011, and neo-Maoist websites like Utopia and maoflag.com were shut for ‘maintenance’. The Party Centre also focussed on the PLA to uncover Bo Xilai’s links. A series of articles and editorials exhorted the PLA to unite “more closely around the Party centre with comrade Hu Jintao as General Secretary” of the Party and adhere to the principle of “absolute loyalty” to the Party. Controls on the Party’s and national security apparatus were simultaneously tightened.
A tussle is concurrently underway between Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping for installation of their respective supporters in the PBSC, PB and CC. Xi Jinping, however, has to tread cautiously as he cannot afford to be deprived of Hu Jintao’s crucial support.
The coming months will be sensitive and there is increased probability of Hu Jintao retaining the position of Military Commission chairman for another year. The CCP’s image has been dented and strict inner-Party discipline and stringent security precautions will be enforced, accompanied by a tougher posture on issues of sovereignty. Nonetheless, serious tensions exist within the Party making it increasingly difficult to rein in ambitions of senior Party cadres.
(Views expressed in the column are the author’s own)
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India