Chinese leadership faces challenges

The world’s second largest economy is slowing down and it is unclear how the country will cope.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang 390 (R) (photo credit: Reuters/Pool)
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang 390 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters/Pool)
After months of media speculation and internet chatter, the political scandal rocking the Chinese Communist Party has taken its next lumbering step forward.  Bo Xilai, once among the highest echelon of the leadership, has been expelled from the Party and now faces an impressive list of criminal charges.  A stratospheric career rise has ended suddenly and dramatically.  The consequences for China and its political development will be felt for some time to come.
Bo is a “princeling” - a child of the original heroes of the Communist Revolution who launched the People’s Republic with Chairman Mao sixty years ago.  Many of the Party’s highest ranks are filled with their sons and daughters, and they remain a powerful force in government decision making.
Despite his personal connections and an extensive power base built up over many years, Bo was, in the end, not as invulnerable as he might have believed.  He has been charged with corruption, bribe-taking and abuse of power, as well as inappropriate sexual relations and involvement in the controversial murder of British businessman Neil Haywood.  Notably, in China the taking of bribes can result in the death penalty.  In addition, Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted last month of using cyanide to murder Haywood.
Courting publicity and nurturing a larger-than-life image, Bo developed a national reputation, and seemed on the verge of gaining a seat at the very top table of Chinese power.  He now looks likely to face trial before the start of the 18th Party Congress, which is scheduled to begin on November 8th.  The Party Congress is an important step in the generational handover of power that occurs once every decade in modern China.  Delegates are expected to select Xi Jinping, the current vice-president, to take over the presidency at the end of Hu Jintao’s term.
The wider ramifications of the Bo scandal are still unfolding.  In an official statement,  the Chinese government stated, “We must resolutely investigate and deal with criminal cases no matter who they involve, and regardless of how great or small is their power.”  Bo’s fate is now inevitably intertwined with the historic Party Congress, and there will be many within the Party who hope that the trial will quickly and efficiently put Bo, and the controversies that his fall has revealed, firmly and decisively into the past.
The picture currently being painted of Bo in the state media is one of a violent and capricious emperor, widely feared by those he governed, who profited illegal from his state positions, while still having time to indulge in marital infidelities on a massive scale.  This represents a complete unraveling of the seasoned political boss who ten months ago appeared unassailable and at the threshold of national power.  He was believed by many to be close to an appointment to the nine-member Standing Committee, which directs national Chinese policy.
Haywood death last November, however, in the city of Chongqing, which Bo ruled as party secretary, unleashed a series of events that eventually knocked down the house of cards on which Bo’s illustrious career had been perched.  In the months that followed, his right hand man, China’s “top cop” Wang Lijun, would attempt to defect to the US embassy, while his wife Gu would be convicted of Haywood’s murder, earning her a suspended death sentence.
China faces significant challenges in the near future.  The world’s second largest economy is slowing down, and it is unclear how the country, which has become used to jaw-dropping levels of growth over the past three decade will cope with less super-human levels.  Ongoing boundary disputes with Japan over nearby islands are also fueling an escalating diplomatic row that has lend to anti-Japanese riots on the streets of Chinese cities.
The market reforms over the past 30 years as created huge quantities of wealth within China, although prosperity has not been evenly shared either across the provinces or up-and-down the rungs of society.  Corruption remains an anchor around the neck of both the economic and the political systems in China.  Difficult questions are necessarily being raised by the Bo scandal about the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Communist Party as stewards of China’s future.
Is China ready for its own version of Glasnost?
In the end, the Soviet system was unable to withstand the forces that were unleashed by the quest for transparency and accountability.  Decades later, the Russia state that succeeded it is still wrestling ineffectively with these same issues, as well as an economy that has been liberalized only incompletely and half-heartedly.
By ejecting Bo from the Communist Party, Chinese leaders are taking a stand, specifically against Bo as particularly egregious example of criminality among public officials, but also generally against the uncertainty that has mounted in recent weeks over the selection of the next generation of Chinese leaders.
In the years to come, much will be demanded of the Chinese political system, as it attempts to reconcile conflicting demands, both internal and external.  Bo’s trial and the Party Congress in November will attempt to promote a picture of unity and certainty that will enable the newly anointed leaders to start their terms in offices as effectively as possible.  Only by addressing the underlying issues of corruption and lack of popular accountability, however, can that effectiveness be maintained.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.