China: Bo, Wen and the Question of 'Party Reform'

8 MINS READApr 19, 2012 | 18:28 GMT
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A Communist Party of China member swears in front of the Party emblem

A Xinhua editorial published in the official English-language China Daily on April 18 argued that the current investigation of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai and his family did not "indicate a political struggle within the [Communist] Party." The editorial further noted that the scandal and investigation would not impede China's development; that "consensus and unity" within the Party and between it and the people remained a strong foundation of China's success; and that success in China "hinges on the Party."

Despite this positive assessment, the Party is struggling to preserve its legitimacy among the Chinese people at a time of changing economic and social circumstances in China. Bo's rise to prominence through his neo-Maoist policies and Premier Wen Jiabao's calls for a Party more responsive to the people, as well as his public criticism of Bo's methods, reflect the internal debate over the need for, and method of, Party reform. 

The idea of Party reform has existed about as long as the Communist Party of China (CPC) itself. The meaning of Party reform, however, is not always so clear-cut. In the traditional sense, Party reform is a natural process for a party at the vanguard of the revolution, adjusting to changing times and circumstances to stay on the leading edge of the country's social and economic development.

During the early years of the People's Republic of China, Party reform was at times used as a way to shape factional battles or when there was a need to expel members who were too far right or left. More often, Party reform is a catchphrase to address the disconnect between the Party and the people, particularly at times of social or economic stress. 

Deng Xiaoping's Party reforms were a fundamentally new direction for Chinese economic (and international political) development. Party reform in the Jiang Zemin era involved breaking down the barriers between the business community and the Party — accepting entrepreneurs into the Party ranks as a way to manage the continuation of Deng's economic policies.

Under current President Hu Jintao, Party reform has reflected the need to respond to the rising social disparity between the coast and the interior inherent in Deng's economic model. The Party has interpreted social instability as a sign of its waning legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Thus, the Party has focused on ways to deal with scandals involving corruption and nepotism. In this context, "reform" serves as a demonstration of the Party's sincerity to respond to the public's displeasure with officials who exploit their positions. 

Party reform has also included experiments with local-level democratic elections and promises of increased democratic participation for Chinese citizens. In short, Party reform is the way the members of the Party adjust its image (and at times its actions) to retain its legitimacy as the singular ruling power in China. This is growing more difficult as the promise of Deng's economic policies to provide a path for all Chinese to get rich proves unattainable, particularly in the current global economic situation. Coupled with a Chinese citizenry that is more active in probing the actions of its local officials — and the revelations of apparently endemic Party misappropriations and corruption — the limitations of Deng's economic model are making it more difficult for the CPC to justify its continued leadership.

The Bo Scandal

The case of Bo Xilai fits clearly in this paradigm. Bo's rise to power began through traditional nepotistic channels, and he used his economic leverage and family connections to construct a large web of alliances and patronage among China's elite. Bo's populist and neo-Maoist policies in Chongqing served as a way to address flagging respect for the Party and local officials. Bo did not have to believe what he was promoting; he needed only to draw on latent nostalgia for the perceived social and economic equality of the Mao era, just as American politicians may draw on the imagery of false memory of the 1950s.

Bo used populism and neo-Maoism to try to rebuild the legitimacy of and support for the Party. Though he may have done so to expand his own economic and political influence, his program nonetheless drew attention from Beijing and other regional Party officials, who saw in neo-Maoism a way to reclaim respect for the Party with minimal real change. Neo-Maoism could serve to legitimize the recentralization of economic policies, draw on nostalgia to encourage cooperation and less stress across socio-economic classes and encourage the poor with the belief that their struggles were for the betterment of society.

As a short-term public relations strategy, particularly in the populous but isolated city of Chongqing in the Sichuan Basin, it was an effective policy. As a solution to the underlying problems that contributed to the loss of respect for the Party, it did little. 

As the Bo scandal erupted, the Party center rallied and shifted from a low-key approach to a very public criticism of Bo — and, in some cases, of his policies. The Party held up Bo's case as evidence that it was working to remove corrupt elements, even if that meant going after well-known officials with bright futures.

Behind the scenes the Party was more cautious; the patronage networks in China are elaborate and extensive, and pushing too far could expose the misconduct of other officials. By placing the most egregious and sensational of Bo's offenses — the murder of a British citizen — on the front pages of the Chinese media, Beijing could claim it was fighting internal corruption while not exposing the depths of those same corrupt networks throughout the Party.

It is here that Premier Wen Jiabao has stepped up to emphasize another way to try to rebuild Party legitimacy. In part for personal reasons, Wen has been at the forefront of the criticism of Bo's policies. He has raised concerns that things like neo-Maoism could bring back a Cultural Revolution and with that the darker aspects of the very years people remembered nostalgically. Wen has instead called for more Party responsiveness to the people, highlighting that the Party is both for and of the people.

In many ways, this is also simply a public relations move; Wen understands that true responsiveness to popular discontent could quickly undermine the Party itself. But Wen has made a career out of being seen as a man of the people. The trajectory of his political career stands in stark contrast to that of Bo. 

A Man of the People

Wen's career was built on quietly maneuvering as a "mishu," or personal secretary, to senior officials and an uncanny ability to remain in positions of power despite his connection to ousted officials such as Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Wen has been able to continue to promote the social causes of his former mentors (even if often in muted form) without damaging his own rise and reputation.

Wen has defended the large populations of central China — citizens who have felt disenfranchised by the strong coastal growth resulting from Deng's economic reforms. Wen was a driving force behind both the "Rise of Central China" plan in 2004 and the "Revitalize Northeast China" plan in 2003, and he helped formulate the 2006 "New Socialist Countryside" policy. Though these efforts have not accomplished their goals, Wen has retained his image as a man of the people, something that the Party can exploit but that also protects Wen from competitors. 

Interestingly, both Bo and Wen have drawn on Party concepts from the days of Mao: in Bo's case the nostalgia for red flags and promises of wealth redistribution and in Wen's case the promise of a Party responsible to the people. Neither path is without risks. Real wealth redistribution, to address the needs of the rural and interior populace, means taking away from others. Moreover, a Party truly responsive to the people risks exposing the extent of its internal corruption, nepotism and the country's widening wealth disparity, and it could even be a slippery slope to actual democracy, something the Party is certainly not advocating at this time. Still, a primarily public relations response to the falling legitimacy of the Party can only provide temporary respite.

The Necessity of Party Reform

The Party recognizes the problems, but the entrenched interests of the elite are not easily overcome. There is consensus within the Party that reform may be necessary for political survival — understood as strengthening the public perception of the Party as the legitimate center of Chinese policy. But there is no consensus on how to achieve that goal. And since the days of Deng, consensus has been institutionalized in the Party leadership (largely due to Deng's attempts to prevent the re-emergence of a Mao-like populist who might disrupt the fragile balance of political power both within the Party and between Beijing and the provinces).

But economic and social pressures are bearing down on China amid the current leadership transition. China is approaching the end of the economic growth cycle that began in 1992 and matured in 2002. Had there been no financial crisis in 2008-2009, the cycle might have continued longer, without immediate pressure to change. But Beijing's massive, ongoing stimulus efforts in the last three years have exacerbated structural imbalances in the national and regional economies built up over the past three decades of economic reform and opening. This is adding impetus for Party reform — or at least to the impression of greater Party responsiveness to the people — at a time when political unity and stability would normally be seen as the paramount impression to give. 

The problem is that reform in the Chinese political context is hard to define and is seen, in part by virtue of its vagueness, as a fundamental threat to a Party elite structure closely wedded to the current political and economic status quo. A false or overly rapid step could irreparably damage the Party's position. At the same time, failure to change would diminish Beijing's ability to respond to social stresses between the coast and the interior, urban and rural areas and between the political center and competing regional interests.

Neither path is appealing, but the cost of inaction may ultimately outweigh the immediate benefits to the Party. Given the Party's strong focus on consensus and immediate social stability, Beijing is unlikely to embrace change in the near future. The current model served well in the decades following 1989, but its continued efficacy is less certain.

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