Murder mystery leaves clues to China's succession crisis

The case of Bo Xilai reveals that power struggles within China's top leadership cannot always be hidden, and so political paralysis has become a risk.

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It was not meant to be like this. Six months until the once-in-a-decade succession in China, and the fifth generation of leaders is supposed to be nearing the end of its apprenticeship and getting ready to take over the reins of power in the populous superpower-to-be. But the succession arrangements have been disturbed after a vice-minister rank cadre, Wang Lijun, unsuccessfully sought asylum at the US consulate in Chengdu in early February.

Mr Wang was a former security chief and vice mayor of the special municipality of Chongqing in southwest China. Until last month he was the right-hand man to the charismatic Bo Xilai, formerly China's only political superstar, the Party secretary of Chongqing who was known as the "Prince of the Southwest". Mr Wang's apparent attempted defection put paid to Mr Bo's ambition to rise to the top leadership, but events are still shrouded in mystery and the subjects of wild speculation.

The rumours included an attempted coup in Beijing and the fall from grace of an existing Politburo Standing Committee member, Zhou Yongkang, who had been a supporter of Mr Bo. Both rumours have since been disproved.

But the spread of rumours and the failure of the nearly all-powerful Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to prevent them suggests the top leadership was divided long enough to prevent it from acting effectively and pre-emptively. When the top leadership is united, information is tightly controlled even in the era of the internet, which really only exists as a vast intranet inside the great firewall of China.

Indeed, one thing is certain among all the mysteries and uncertainties. The institutionalisation of the politics of succession since the 1997 death of China's last strong man, Deng Xiaoping, has run into trouble.

Mr Bo was until last month expected to be elevated to the powerful nine-person Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP at the next party congress in the autumn. He was to be one of the key leaders for the next decade. Not anymore.

What we do know is that Mr Wang felt his own personal safety was at risk after he had fallen out with Mr Bo, and so he sought sanctuary in the US consulate. Whether he intended to defect is speculative. What is certain is that this very act would have made him a "traitor" to the CCP, which has always treated perceived disloyalty very harshly.

What made Mr Wang feel so desperate is still unknown. The official reason for Mr Bo's predicament is the death of a British businessman, Neil Heywood. The Briton had good links with the Bo family but had reportedly recently antagonised Mr Bo's wife, Gu Kailai.

The idea that Mr Wang had crossed his boss by insisting on investigating the suspicious death is unconvincing. Until his fall, Mr Wang was a ruthless and calculating security chief and Mr Bo's top hatchet man. He was never a law-and-order campaigner. Since the Heywood family never made an issue of the death, there was no compelling reason why Mr Wang would investigate, especially at such a risk to his own safety.

Mr Wang must have gone to the US consulate because he saw it as a lesser evil. Whatever the reason, it could have only one political consequence: to discredit Mr Bo so much that his naked ambition to be appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee would be foiled.

For a month Mr Bo tried to contain the damage and fight back. Three weeks ago he was sacked from his positions in Chongqing and confined to his house, although his Politburo and Central Committee membership was only suspended on Tuesday. His slow-motion downfall fuelled the uncertainty and speculation.

Mr Bo's fall is significant in another way because he had projected something called the "Chongqing model" of governance. Loosely characterised by a public anti-corruption campaign and nostalgic patriotic demonstrations, this model was actually much less clearly defined than some have stated. But it did seem to represent a modified, or even an alternative, approach to that advocated by President Hu Jintao's leadership circle. Mr Bo's disgrace now puts an end to the "Chongqing model", whatever it was.

What is really important in this saga is that the top leaders took nearly two months to agree on how to deal with Mr Bo. Even now, his Party offices are only suspended and not revoked. In contrast, his wife has been named as the prime suspect in Heywood's murder. This suggests a compromise among top leaders. At stake is not what may happen to Mr Bo (who is politically finished) but how to maintain a balance among various power blocs in the leadership.

Their inability to act promptly and decisively regarding Mr Bo shows the deep divisions among them that are now reaching a point where political paralysis is no longer impossible.

The most basic strength of the regime after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union was the acute awareness among China's top leaders that they either hang together or hang separately. This unity of purpose provided the hard power for regime survival, which was strengthened by rapid economic growth and, therefore, the steady overall improvement in the standard of living.

The "consultative Leninist" political system in place in China remains remarkably ruthless, single-minded and robust. It is first and foremost dedicated to regime survival. The eventual agreement to bring down Mr Bo shows that the top leadership can still act together.

But the manner of Mr Bo's fall reveals that unity at the top is fragile. With fissures becoming visible and the stakes getting higher as succession approaches, the ability of the top leadership to bury their differences to ensure regime stability is no longer an academic question.

Steve Tsang is the director of the China Policy Institute and a professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK