FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Extent of China's leadership crisis becoming evident
, April 28, 2012
China’s leadership transition was supposed to be smooth and trouble-free, as it was a decade ago, when Hu Jintao emerged as President and Wen Jiabao, the smiling tiger, as Premier. Wen would be known as Prime Minister in Australia, but is actually only number three in China’s hierarchy. He has proved to be a most presentable spokesman for the Communist regime.
This time the transition will not be smooth. The detention of Bo Xilai, pin-up boy for the Party’s left faction in Szechuan Province in China’s far west, is only one part of a larger puzzle. Bo had previously been the popular mayor of Dalian, the thriving port-city in what the Chinese call dong bei — or the “east-north” — and what we would call Manchuria.
Bo was transferred to Szechuan, where he set about installing a leftist model based on reviving group singing of Maoist songs and busting the crime gangs that rule gambling, prostitution and drugs as they have done in China since time immemorial.
Bo’s economic model was based on stimulating local demand, said to be the new wave for growth in China, as it moves away from export-driven growth in the coastal regions to indigenous demand. The interior has benefited far less from the “China miracle”.
The main city in Szechuan, Chongqing, is enormous. With a population of over 30 million, it is the biggest city in China, far bigger than second-ranking Shanghai, with its population of 20 million.
It all exploded in Bo’s face when his chief of police fled to the United States consulate in Chengdu — another major city in Szechuan — and spilled the beans on Bo’s methods. About that time, renewed attention was paid to the mysterious death of British businessman and “white glove” facilitator Neil Heywood, who is alleged to have clandestinely laundered Bo’s multi-billion-dollar fortune and clandestinely moved much of it abroad.
Although Heywood was said by his friends to have been a virtual teetotaller, Chinese authorities are alleging he died of “alcoholic poisoning”. More recently, reports have emerged that Heywood was in a romantic relationship with Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, a major political player in her own right, and that Heywood had been poisoned with cyanide on Bo’s orders.
As it turns out, a lot of very dirty linen about Bo and his family’s extravagant lifestyle and enormous wealth is emerging. Both Bo and his wife are now in detention, facing the prospect of death sentences for corruption. Bo’s wife has reportedly confessed to everything in exchange for her life.
But Bo, while not exactly a minor player, is by no means the biggest player in this drama. As the late Dr Frank Knopfelmacher, a senior lecturer at Melbourne University, was fond of saying, “There are no accidents in politics.” Or, as another commentator has observed, “The only thing worse than having politicians is having no politicians.”
China’s Political and Legislative Affairs Committee (PLAC) is probably the most powerful body in the country, combining virtually every judicial and law enforcement body, including the armed police.
The PLAC is virtually unknown except to China specialists, but it has the power of life and death over every person in China, including Party members. Anyone can be detained and questioned, — or, in the case of Falun Gong practitioners, have their organs removed while they are still alive.
Before Hu Jintao’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, began the repression of Falun Gong in 1999, there were an estimated 100 million Falun Gong practitioners in the country, and an estimated 100 million Catholic and Protestant Christians. The PLAC was Jiang’s vehicle to purge religious believers from Chinese society. This institution is all the more powerful for being the only organ of the state, apart from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), that can operate across provincial boundaries and intervene in every county and village in China.
What started out as a purge of Bo Xilai is now homing in on the main target — followers of Jiang Zemin, in particular Zhou Yongkang, who is head of the PLAC.
With Jiang Zemin said to be in a vegetative state and not expected to survive long, Zhou Yongkang has become the main target of the purge. Zhou, along with Bo, had been installed by Jiang to carry out his campaign against religious believers. Zhou consequently earned the title of China’s “internal security czar”.
While the PLA must be considered in any calculation of power struggles within the Chinese elite, the PLA is designed to be used against external enemies. The normal police and armed police are the customary instruments of internal repression. The two police forces number around 3 million, or twice the strength of the PLA. In financial terms, the PLAC absorb some $110 billion a year — more than the officially quoted budget for the PLA.
In terms of a dialectical “flip”, the opponents of Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang aim to purge them and their supporters. Zhou is said to have been referred to the Committee for Disciplinary Inspection, and is accused of having plotted a coup.
China’s leadership transition will not be a smooth one.