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Uncertain times ahead for the Chinese leadership

Last updated on: April 13, 2012 11:56 IST

Uncertain times ahead for the Chinese leadership

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B Raman

Developments in the disgraced party official Bo Xilai case have engulfed China's top leadership. Was Bo's ouster part of a well-planned conspiracy? Security expert B Raman takes a look at the intriguing incident.

Wang Lijun was the deputy director of the Public Security Bureau in Tiefa in the Liaoning province from 1992 to 1995. From 1995 to 2000, he held the same position in Tieling city, also in the Liaoning Province.

In 2000, he was promoted as the director of the Public Security Bureau in Tieling. From 2003 to 2008, he served as the director of the Public Security Bureau of Jinzhou city in the same province.

During this period, Bo Xilai was the Governor of the province.

Wang was transferred along with Bo to Chongqing in 2008, and became the head of the Public Security Bureau there. On February 2,2012, Wang was shifted to a post dealing with education and environmental affairs.

There was speculation that his transfer was because of an enquiry initiated against him on charges of corruption during his earlier posting in Tieling. Four days later, Wang travelled to Chengdu in the Sichuan province, visited the United States consulate and remained there for nearly 24 hours. He then left the Consulate on his own.

Boxun, a Chinese language website run by an overseas Chinese group, alleged that Wang had carried with him to the US Consulate documents alleging the involvement of Bo and other senior government and party officials in corruption.

The Public Security Bureau of Chongqing sent a large armed police party to Chengdu to surround the consulate. They were withdrawn on the orders of the Chinese Foreign Office. Qiu Jin, vice minister for State Security, took custody of Wang as he came out of the consulate and took him to Beijing for interrogation.

It was not clear as to why the US consulate did not grant asylum to Wang if he had asked for it, thereby forcing him to leave the Consulate and surrender himself. On February 9, several overseas Chinese-language websites posted an open letter allegedly written by Wang, accusing Bo of corruption and having criminal links.

It was not clear when he wrote that letter.

The Information Office of the Chongqing Municipality started a campaign for discrediting Wang by alleging that he was "seriously indisposed due to long-term overwork and intense mental stress and had been authorised to undergo vacation-style medical treatment."

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Image: Workers use electric irons to smooth out a Communist Party of China flag on a table at the Beijing Jingong Red Flag factory, located on the outskirts of Beijing
Photographs: David Gray/Reuters

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In the inner circles of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the Wang incident and reports of his making allegations of corruption against Bo reportedly led to criticism of the style of functioning of Bo and his advocacy of "core socialist values" and a "red culture movement" in Chongqing.

Bo was absent from the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) on March 8. Although he attended the subsequent sessions and spoke to local and foreign journalists, his absence on the opening day triggered off speculation that he had fallen into disfavour. This speculation was confirmed on March 15 when Bo was replaced as the Chongqing Communist Party secretary following public comments by Premier Wen Jiabao about the need for Chongqing officials to seriously reflect on the Wang Lijun incident.

Wen cautioned about the dangers of a new Cultural Revolution.

While Bo was removed from the posts occupied by him in Chongqing, he was not removed from the more important posts of member of the party central committee and Politburo, which gave him status and power at the national level.

Thus, while he lost his power at the regional level, he retained his power at the national level.

Following his removal from the Chongqing posts, Chinese microblogs started speculating that Bo's removal indicated a power struggle in the party and that, in fact, there had been a coup attempt by some of his supporters, including former minister of public security Zhou Yongkang.

These rumours were not proved correct. President Hu Jintao stuck to his programmes to visit Seoul for the Nuclear Security Summit, New Delhi for the BRICS summit and Cambodia on a bilateral visit. Foreign dignitaries continued visiting China without any changes in their programmes.

Zhou appeared in public on many occasions. It was thus clear that there was no political struggle in Beijing as alleged by many microblogs.

The Chinese authorities strongly condemned the rumours being spread through the internet of a power struggle in the party and appealed to the people not to believe such rumours.

Almost simultaneously, there were rumours that Wang had told US consular officials at Chengdu that Neil Heywood, a British businessman found dead in a Chongqing hotel room in November last year, had been poisoned on the orders of Gu Kailai, wife of Bo, who is a lawyer, contradicting claims by Chinese authorities that the 41-year-old businessman had died of an alcohol overdose.

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Image: Disgraced former secretary of the Communist Party in Chongqing Bo Xilai
Photographs: Reuters

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Following this, there were reports that the British government had started pressing Beijing to reopen the investigation. According to the Agence France Presse, before his visit to Chongqing, Heywood used to work for a consultancy firm floated by some ex-officers of the MI-6, the British external intelligence agency.

The CPC central committee announced on April 10,2012, the party's decision to suspend Bo from the Politburo and the central committee of the CPC on charges of serious violations of party discipline.

The Ministry of Public Security separately announced the re-opening of the investigation into the death of Heywood and the arrest of Bo's wife in this connection.

The sate-controlled Xinhua news agency disseminated the following report on April 10, "As Comrade Bo Xilai is suspected of being involved in serious discipline violations, the CPC has decided to suspend his membership of the CPC central committee Political Bureau and the CPC central committee, in line with the CPC Constitution and the rules on investigation of CPC discipline inspection departments."

"The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the CPC will file the case for investigation." the Xinhua alerted Chinese readers that the People's Daily, the party daily, will be coming out with a commentary on Bo's suspension the next day.

Intriguingly, the Reuters news agency disseminated news of Bo's suspension before Xinhua officially announced it. This gave rise to speculation as to how Reuters got the news. Was it briefed by the Party or did someone aware of the decision leak the news before it was officially disseminated by Xinhua?

On April 11, the People's Daily launched a two-pronged campaign, firstly, to demonise Bo and appeal to the people for maintaining stability and development and solidarity with the party and government and secondly for projecting that the party and government officials and the people of Chongqing have been supporting the central committee decisions on Bo.

A commentary in the daily that sought to explain the decisions stated inter alia as follows, "This (Bo's suspension) fully displays the respect for fact and the rule of law, and is entirely consistent with the party's basic requirement of strict discipline on its members and the Party's governing philosophy of running state affairs according to law."

"This also showcases the party's determination to keep its purity, and the clear stand of the party and government to safeguard party discipline and the laws of the state. This will gain support from all members of the Party and the public," it said.

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Image: Murdered British businessman Neil Heywood
Photographs: Reuters

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It added, "Based on the facts made public so far, the Wang Lijun incident is a serious political event leaving very negative impacts at home and abroad, and the death of Heywood is a serious criminal case involving the family and close staff of a party and state leader."

"The CPC central committee, with Hu Jintao as the general secretary, has resolutely moved to investigate into related events, seriously handle the situation and inform the public promptly, displaying the strong sense of responsibility to the cause of the party and people as well as firm commitment to the socialist rule of law. The facts have proven that the CPC stands for the people, accepts their supervision, never compromises on corruption and will probe and punish any violations of law and discipline," it said.

It added, "China is a socialist country ruled by law, and its sanctity and authority shall not be trampled. Whoever has broken the law will be handled in accordance with law and will not be tolerated, no matter who is involved and no matter what position he is in."

"There is no privileged citizen before the law. The party does not tolerate any special member who is above the law. No one can interfere with law enforcement and anyone who violates the law could not be at large."

The commentary called on the people to maintain a high level of ideological unity with the CPC Central Committee with Hu as the general secretary, and hold high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

An opinion piece in the same issue of the People's Daily called for consolidated confidence in China's fight against corruption despite the fact that it is a "long-term, complex and arduous task."

It said, "Some corrupt individuals instruct their spouses, children, mistresses, friends or even relatives to receive bribes on their behalf, or receive remarkable personal bonuses through facilitating third-party business activities."

"Some deliberately commit corruption overseas, transfer embezzled money and assets abroad, or secretly obtain citizenship from foreign countries," it alleged.

The article contributed by the Beijing-based Center for the Studies of the Socialist Theory System with Chinese Characteristics appealed to the people to have full confidence in the CPC-led anti-corruption work, because the party has the resolution to succeed, and its strong leadership will prevail.

The two articles carried by the People's Daily had the objective of discounting speculation that Bo's suspension indicated an ideological struggle in the party between reformists led by Hu and Wen and a New Left consisting of Bo and his followers which challenged the deviations from the core socialist principles by the reformists.

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Image: Chinese President Hu Jintao
Photographs: How Hwee Young/Reuters

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The two articles sought to project that the suspension of Bo and the arrest of his wife were purely due to corruption and other illegal acts committed by them and had nothing to do with any ideological differences.

Despite this, many netizens believe that ideological differences were the prime motive for the suspension of Bo, and that allegations of corruption and illegalities were being used as a pretext to justify his suspension.

Despite the party's efforts to project that things were normal in Chongqing after the suspension of Bo and that the local people had hailed his suspension, reports started coming in of demonstrations and acts of violence in Chongqing, resulting in the People's Armed Police being called out to maintain law and order.

In a commentary, Radio Free Asia, funded by the US State Department, reported as follows, "The clashes were not obviously connected to the purging of ousted populist Chongqing ruling Chinese Communist Party chief Bo Xilai from high-ranking posts, but began around the same time as his ouster announcement via the official Xinhua news agency late on Tuesday."

"The riots were triggered by a decision to merge Wansheng district with neighboring Qijiang county earlier this year, according to online reports. Residents of Wansheng District are worried their living standards and economic conditions will be hit by the merger, said the reports."

Bo can be dismissed only by a plenary of the central committee. After the completion of the investigations against him and his wife, the plenary is expected to be convened to decide on his dismissal. Indications are that the reformists are in a majority in the Central Committee. The dismissal of Bo is a foregone conclusion.

Bo was a regionally popular and populist leader of the New Left in the Party, who was aspiring to become a member of the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo during the Party Congress later this year, which will pave the way for the succession of Hu and Wen.

With Bo out of the way, the New Left will be without a leader of the same charisma and calibre and will not be able to challenge the reformists.

The prevailing nervousness in Beijing reflected in the articles of the People's Daily is not due to fears that the Leftists may strike back causing political instability, but due to fears of the unpredictability of the millions of netizens who are emerging as an active force in China's political landscape.

The netizens are changing the complexion and force of the political mainstream. Bo was an iconic hero to many of them. The Party will be more worried about Bo's followers in the virtual than the real world. The nervousness of the reformists will continue until the new leadership takes over from Hu and Wen and is firmly in position. Uncertain months are ahead for the Chinese leadership.


Image: A woman and a pet dog walk past a poster depicting the logo of the Communist Party of China in Chongqing municipality
Photographs: Jason Lee/Reuters

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