China's Politburo proves vulnerable to power of scandal
Political scandals in most societies refuse to go away. Even after the fall of the protagonists, stories with powerful politicians at their centre acquire a life of their own. The plot thickens, scandals beget scandals, and more politicians fall.
This grim logic seems to be confirmed in China by the still unfolding affair of Bo Xilai, the former party boss of Chongqing. Mr Bo has been toppled from power, and his wife Gu Kailai arrested on charges of murdering a British businessman. The fall of Mr Bo, a rising star long thought to be a contender for one of the most powerful positions in the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo, shocked the regime.
Soon after Mr Bo was disgraced, rumours of a coup in Beijing spread like wildfire. The party's leaders had to ask provincial authorities to publicly pledge their loyalty to the central government. The People's Liberation Army's top commander, Guo Boixiong, was sent to Chengdu military district, which is close to Chongqing, to warn generals against believing "political rumours".
His trip, of course, only sparked more rumours, one of which suggested that the political commissar of the district had been implicated in the Bo scandal. If the rumour is true, that senior officer extorted millions of dollars from a wealthy businessman falsely accused by Mr Bo of being a member of organised crime.
For a one-party regime preparing for a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, a never-ending scandal, threatening to expose corruption and destroy the fragile unity among the ruling elites, is the last thing top leaders want. Despite the party's heroic efforts to censor the news and minimise the fallout, recent signs suggest that even more powerful figures in Beijing may be vulnerable.
One recent development has emphasised this trend. Sixteen retired midlevel government officials from the province of Yunnan published an open letter last week calling for the resignation of two of China's most prominent leaders, the internal security chief Zhou Yongkang and the propaganda minister Liu Yunshan.
Such a public show of opposition is highly unusual. As a rule, it is normally fine for citizens to criticise government policy, but bashing individual leaders by name and demanding their resignation would seem to be a sure ticket to jail. There is only one plausible explanation: these retired officials acted on behalf of powerful politicians who tried to use them to undermine Mr Zhou and Mr Liu. After the Bo affair, rival factions were intent on exploiting the political momentum to weaken opponents who appeared tarnished.
In the case of Mr Zhou, a much-feared member of the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee in charge of the internal security portfolio, his close ties to Mr Bo must have hurt his standing. He reportedly tried in vain to protect Mr Bo as the scandal broke.
Scheduled to retire in October, Mr Zhou would have been an influential player behind the scenes in picking the next generation of senior leaders at the party congress later this year. At the weekend, he was named a delegate to the congress, but with his personal authority weakened it is almost certain that his role in the succession process will be marginalised. However, because of his status as one of the top nine leaders of the party, Mr Zhou is in little danger of being cashiered. The party has absolutely no appetite for another divisive fight at the top.
Based on credible reports in the western press, Mr Zhou had already relinquished his day-to-day responsibilities. In all likelihood, he will simply fade away from politics after the transition.
Which raises an important question: which factions are winning in this power struggle?
The conventional wisdom is that there are several factions, some of which overlap. They are the "princelings" (representing descendants of revolutionary leaders), the Communist Youth League leaders, the Shanghai faction (leaders who have served in Shanghai, such as the former president Jiang Zemin), and the officials who have worked in China's energy sector, such as Mr Zhou, who was the chairman of China's largest oil company in the 1990s.
The problem is that the fall of Mr Bo and the reverberations tell us very little about which factions have gained and which have lost, simply because the factional lines are so fluid and amorphous.
The only obvious winners are those at the very top. The purge of Mr Bo and the weakening of his patrons have obviously strengthened the hand of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao as they steer the party leadership transition process. Xi Jinping, who is expected to take over as president, and Li Keqiang, the probable new prime minister, are also beneficiaries - a power-hungry, unscrupulous and reportedly difficult politician in the form of Mr Bo has been removed from the next leadership team.
But of course, even winners in this political drama need to be careful. Purging dangerous rivals is one thing, but getting rid of them at the expense of the party's survival is another.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College
Published: May 21, 2012 04:00 AM