Is a Divide Opening Between Beijing’s Leaders?

Bo Xilai’s ouster and the neutralization of his allies marks a victory for the Communist Party’s liberal reformers.

The normally private internal conflicts of the Chinese Communist Party spilled into the public sphere with the dramatic sacking of Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai on March 15. Subsequently, on the evening of March 19, rumors of a coup surfaced. Gunshots were reportedly heard on the edge of Zhongnanhai in central Beijing and military vehicles seen on Chang’an Avenue.

In addition to Bo’s ouster, exile websites report that Zhou Yongkang, a leading Politburo official and ally of his, had been neutralized by his rival, President Hu Jintao, who enjoys the support of the military.

Bo’s and possibly Zhou’s ouster expose a fierce struggle within the Communist Party over the 2012 succession of power in Beijing.

The dramatic sacking of Bo and neutralization of his allies marks a victory for the party’s liberal reformers and an official rebuke of Bo’s neo-Maoist “Chongqing Model.”

Premier Wen Jiabao and his allies saw Bo as a new Mao, a dictator who could threaten them and their families’ business interests.

Hu, Wen and their supporters employed a tried and true method for eliminating the upstart from Chongqing — corruption charges. Charges against Bo stem from the attempted defection of Wang Lijun, Bo’s recently demoted vice mayor and police chief, who fled to the American consulate in Chengdu, allegedly to seek asylum.

Later, while being questioned in Beijing, Wang reportedly provided authorities with incriminating material about Bo and his family.

Analysis

With seven of the nine positions on the Politburo Standing Committee about to be filled, for months Beijing has been engaged in an internal tussle over the choice of new members. The Chinese capital hasn’t experienced a power struggle like the one now underway since the bloody suppression of the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The current showdown threatens to jeopardize the carefully planned change in the party and national leadership.

The political drama surrounding the sacking of the princeling Bo Xilai exposes a deeper power struggle within China leading up to this year’s generational shift. The struggle itself indicates fissures within China’s leadership as well as its future direction.

The concept of a “united front” is fundamental to Chinese political culture. The idea that all internal disagreements should be suppressed and the party should present itself as having no internal dissent or differences of opinion is used to ensure that the party presents no weakness; its edicts cannot be publically challenged and individual leaders remain loyal to it.

The recent removal of rising star Bo Xilai and subsequent rumors of a coup mark a significant departure from the party’s normally disciplined control of the narrative and its most significant public conflict in decades.

While the party is now in damage control mode and attempting to present unity in public, the affair exposes divergent ideological and economic interests among cliques within the Chinese Communist Party which could threaten the smooth transfer of power planned for November of this year.

Wikistrat Bottom Lines

Opportunities

The neutralization of Bo Xilai and his clique is seen as a victory for pro-reform liberalism within the Chinese Communist Party and diminishes the threat of neo-Maoist populism that Bo employed in Chongqing. During the course of the internal party conflict, the usually tight controls on the Internet were relaxed. Such experiments in political participation may pave the way for the increased political engagement of the Chinese public and increase China’s openness and transparency.

Risks

Political infighting could stall China’s reforms, complicate this year’s power transition and impede China’s economic growth. Internal conflict may also cause China’s ruling elite to be less flexible in international affairs.

Dependencies

China’s economic slowdown does not result in an effort to roll back or slow the pace of reform. Increased political engagement and participation of the Chinese public is increasingly viewed as additive, necessary and legitimate in Chinese politics.

Nicholas Clement, Joel Ferris, Chris Janiec and Steve Keller contributed to this analysis.

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