The mysterious Orient, hidden behind a façade of inscrutability, an enigma wrapped in a veil of secrecy: that’s how the internal politics of China are “reported” in the West – and that’s just the way the present Chinese leadership likes it. They quite naturally don’t want their dirty linen exposed to public view, and the Western media is surprisingly accommodating about this, as exemplified in Western reporting on the fall of Bo Xilai, a member of the Politburo and up until recently party chieftain of the Chongqing region – the fastest growing metropolis in China.
The West portrays Bo as a “neo-Maoist,” a leading figure in China’s “new left” faction which cavils at the burgeoning inequalities resulting from the country’s rapid economic rise, but this is a simplistic and essentially inaccurate portrayal of what is a decidedly more complicated context.
“To get rich is glorious!” proclaimed China’s maximum leader Deng Xiaoping, the reform-minded successor to Mao, who was himself victimized by the excesses of the radical egalitarian “Cultural Revolution.” Deng led the nation out of the economic sinkhole created by radical Maoist ideology run amok, and onto the “Chinese road to socialism,” which the party’s theoreticians define as “market socialism,” i.e. politically controlled “markets” that function under the watchful (and avaricious) eye of party officials.
This system of highly-regulated “state capitalism” has given rise to a new class of “princelings,” children of high-ranking party cadre who take advantage of their family connections to amass huge fortunes and lord it over the commoners. The result: huge disparities in wealth, and increased popular unrest. You don’t read about it in the Western media, or at least not very often, but China has been hit by a wave of strikes in major manufacturing centers: as the Chinese economy dips, in tandem with the worldwide economic downturn, workers in factory towns are facing pay cuts and mass firings. They are responding with increasingly militant labor actions: while labor unions not controlled by the party are forbidden, they are organizing using the Internet and cell phones, which are ubiquitous in China.
Contrast this with the very visible rise of a new class of “princeling” entrepreneurs, who ride around in expensive foreign cars and live a life very different from the ordinary Chinese worker, and you have all the ingredients of a potential populist upsurge. Add to this the specter of tens of millions of migrant workers coming off the land and into the big cities, which has caused social tension and even outbreaks of violence. The Communist party chieftains are justifiably nervous – and Bo Xilai made them even more nervous.
The son of Bo Yibo, one of the “eight immortals,” Bo Xilai rose through the ranks to become the mayor of the coastal city of Dalian, and then party chieftain of Chongqing, in central China, where the “Chongqing model” became a symbol of Bo’s anti-corruption, tough-on-crime nationalism. Bo is often described, at least in the Western media, as a “neo-Maoist” because he promoted the singing of “red songs” by groups of his supporters and turned Chongqing state television into a propaganda outlet pushing “red culture.” Yet Chongqing has been growing faster than any comparable region in China. Using state subsidies to attract Western investment, notably from Apple, Bo is usually characterized as a “leftist” because of these policies, but the reality – as usual – is a bit more complex.
One of Bo’s big campaigns was trying to bridge the enormous gap between the rising urban bourgeois and the peasants in the countryside by giving the latter “land tickets,” i.e. equity in the land that was formerly “collectively owned” so as to give them a fighting chance to rise when they emigrate to the cities seeking work. As The Economist described it:
“In late 2008 it set up a ‘country land exchange institute’ on the fourth floor of a new office building in the city center. Dong Jianguo, its president (and a senior Chongqing land official), describes this as something like a market for trading carbon emissions. By cutting the amount of land used for building homes or factories and converting it into new farmland, villages can gain credits known as dipiao, or land tickets. These can then be sold to urban developers who want to build on other patches of farmland, usually far away on the city periphery. The aim is to ensure no net loss of tillable fields.”
This, in effect, introduced important market reforms into China’s booming – albeit state-controlled – real estate market, and let a bit of the wealth generated by that boom to “trickle down” to ordinary Chinese, the overwhelming majority of whom still live in agricultural regions. Yet the central party apparatus in Beijing stopped far short of letting the “Chongqing model” develop into a full-fledged land reform program, which would confer land ownership on individuals rather than the outmoded “collective farms” left over from the Maoist era.
Another charge in the current leadership’s arsenal has been the accusation that Bo is an authoritarian intent on bring back the bad old days of the Cultural Revolution. Bo’s appeal to patriotic sentiment, exemplified by the “red songs” campaign, has given this a facile credibility in the Western media. Again, however, the reality is more complex. Bo came into power in Chongqing on the back of an anti-crime campaign, “striking the black,” i.e. going after the Chinese mafia, which had been allowed to flourish by his predecessor in office. As Kim Hunter and Jesse Watson put it in Chongqing and the Three Gorges:
“Organized crime was becoming an increasing problem in the growing city and gangland murders were a regular occurrence, while illegal rackets had taken control of basic city services.”
Bo went after the corrupt head of the local Communist party’s judicial branch, Wen Qiang, former deputy chief of the local police. Wen was found guilty of protecting the gangsters, taking bribes, and rape: he was duly executed. At the time, the Peoples’ Daily, the official voice of the Communist Party, praised these actions, but the central party leadership was not happy. Here was a charismatic and – worst of all – populist figure, who was gaining public support on the strength of political campaigns that, they say, resembled the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, when the country was enveloped in chaos.
Bo’s various campaigns, however, also resembled the efforts of a political party, such as one might see if China allowed multiparty democracy. Here was Bo offering up his own “Chongqing model” – in implicit opposition to the “Guangdong model” favored by the party’s Eastern elites, which emphasized exports over targeting the huge domestic market. Bo’s initiatives were bold, in stark contrast to the timid “reforms” preferred by “pragmatic” party leaders. In the days before his ouster, Bo declared China was ready to move toward a multiparty system: “We need to take the road to democratic rule.” A week later, he was ousted, his whereabouts unknown.
Contra the cliché-ridden “analysis” of the Guardian, Bo is hardly a “neo-Maoist.” His “leftism” is, in reality, populism – which, in the context of a one-party state, is necessarily anti-authoritarian and democratic. Because China is still socialist, with the means of production firmly in the government’s hands, the material benefits accrued by the “new class” of Communist “princelings” are conferred by the state, not the markets.
While certainly no advocate of economic laissez-faire, Bo clearly understood the role played by official corruption and the oligarchy’s collusion with criminal elements in promoting extreme economic inequity. He executed dozens of Chongqing gangsters, who had flourished under the reign of Bo’s predecessor – who is now, not coincidentally, party chief in Guangdong, where a rival “model” is being upheld and promoted by the Beijing leadership. Thousands of criminals, who had been allowed to run rampant by their friends in the local “government,” were jailed, and this gives rise to the charge of “authoritarianism” by his critics in China and abroad. The Guardian quotes one of his biggest critics, the lawyer Li Zhuang:
“Many Chongqing residents feel the city is safer and more beautiful now, but Germany under Hitler was the safest in its history.”
What the Guardian somehow neglects to mention, however, is that Mr. Zhuang was the lawyer for the mobsters behind Wen Qiang – and was himself arrested and found guilty of falsifying evidence (in effect, enabling perjury), after he shocked his lawyers by confessing to the crime in open court. He was jailed for eighteen months.
Zhuang’s arrest and incarceration caused some annoyance in Beijing, due to Zhuang’s law firm’s links to the central Chinese leadership, specifically Fu Yang, another “red princeling.” Zhuang’s law firm, Kangda, as pointed out here, is “welded into the elite of a Communist Party judicial system that runs on kickbacks and connections.” The firm is a political powerhouse:
“It is no stretch to say the fathers of Kangda’s three founding principals ran China’s entire political-security and judicial systems in the 1980s.The law firm was itself spun out of the legal department of an immensely profitable and unaccountable corporate-charity empire called Kanghua, which was run by Deng Pufang, son of Deng Xiaoping.”
When Bo put 800 mobsters on trial, and cleaned up Chongqing, he was literally putting the Communist party in the dock, as dozens of party officials who had taken bribes and worse were exposed to public view. Instead of supporting Bo, the generally pro-Western “liberal” intelligentsia denounced him for subverting “the rule of law” and what they saw as an attack on civil liberties. Yet there are no civil liberties in a one-party authoritarian state, and the rule of law is completely absent: there is only the iron law of oligarchy, which is essentially lawless. Before Bo’s rise, the ordinary citizens of Chongqing were subjected to the “law” of the jungle, in which the most ruthless gangster with the best political connections had the “freedom” to exploit and rob.
China is undergoing a generational changing of the guards, with the “red princelings” waiting in the wings to take power from their fathers: Bo, himself a princeling, represented a challenge to that. That he is going down to the jeers of “liberal” intellectuals in China, and the cheers of Western journalists, is one of the ironies of an age where “left” and “right” don’t mean much anymore.
All sorts of highly improbable stories are now arising, which – coincidentally, of course – blemish Bo’s former record as a fighter against official corruption. Having been stripped of his post, it appears he will lose his seat on the Politburo, and the lesson here is clear for any other aspiring populist leader who dares challenge the Beijing bureaucrats: don’t do it. What Western observers should take away from all this is that the Chinese gerontocracy is as brittle as an over-baked fortune cookie, and living in fear of the populist giant that shows worrying signs of restlessness, especially in the still-impoverished countryside.
Bo’s enemies in the West characterize him not only as a neo-Maoist, but also as China’s Putin, albeit a Putin nipped in the bud. This is what they fear the most about the unsettled situation in China: that a strong leader with a clear program and popular support will displace the Yeltsins currently in control. They much prefer a “collective” leadership committed to the export-driven oligarchic model, which can provide cheap labor for their factories and make sure the Chinese people don’t get out of hand and start demanding consumer goods for themselves instead of luxury reserved for the red princelings. This view was given voice by one Robert Lawrence Kuhn, in a recent New York Times op ed piece:
“Vice President Xi Jinping, who is slated to be approved as general secretary of the Communist Party in the fall and as president the following March, will be the first leader not chosen peremptorily by China’s prior leaders. Rather, he was selected through a broader polling of party officials. While neither transparent nor anonymous, the process is a big advance in China’s long march toward ‘intraparty democracy.’”
“China,” he goes on to say, with a straight face, “is an oligarchy, not a dictatorship.” Oh, what a relief: for a moment there I thought a regime with a gulag imprisoning almost as many as we do and strict controls on speech, with no democratic elections, might qualify as dictatorial. I’m so glad to have been corrected by Senor Kuhn, an investment banker and “corporate strategist” who no doubt is profiting handsomely from some oligarchic largess.