Chinese elite politics has often been described as a black box. Few people outside the innermost circle of the Chinese Communist Party really know what goes on behind the walls of Zhongnanhai. Transparency, in the smoggy city of Beijing, is a bad word.
In recent years, such opacity seems to have worked. The leadership succession was smooth, major government policies were fairly consistent and competition at the top was not more intense than the usual elite rivalries.
People may not know how or why the CCP does what it does, but as long as it kept its house in order, that’s good enough. This sentiment is widely held at home and abroad. Continuity rather than chaos became Beijing’s calling card.
Until recently, most observers expected things to hum along as before, with heir apparent Xi Jinping succeeding President Hu Jintao, and several other less-known senior party members moving in lock-step to take their place at the top table of the ruling communist party.
But then the script went awry. The recent purge of Bo Xilai, former Chongqing party boss and aspiring member of the elite Politburo Standing Committee, suggests that all is not well within the Chinese black box.
Putting aside the lurid tales of adultery, vengeance and death-by-poison that have grown around Mr. and Mrs. Bo and the death of a British associate, the Bo saga is both the result of intense struggles at the top and a sign of the failure of the CCP to settle on a mechanism for a smooth leadership transition.
As the party holds its once-in-a-decade power handover this autumn, it is worth noting that the CCP’s record has not exactly been stellar. Of the six presumptive heirs since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, two were killed, three were purged and only one, Hu, succeeded.
Jiang Zemin got to the top under unusual circumstances ― in the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989.
Granted, Bo was never slated to be No. 1. He was merely campaigning for one of the nine seats on the Standing Committee.
But if even a bid for a lower post could trigger China’s biggest political purge in years, one wonders what the future holds if higher stakes are involved. With no strong man in the mould of Deng Xiao-ping around, how far would factions at the top go to secure primacy over the rest?
The fear is that when ― not if ― the next major political purge comes around, it could be an all-out war within the Communist Party.
Political succession has always been the Achilles’ heel of authoritarian regimes. What’s more, it seems to be a chronic vulnerability of the Chinese system whether imperial, republican or communist, sending the country into paroxysms at various junctures in its history.
There is a simple short-term solution, one that does not involve radical overhaul to a Western liberal democratic model. It is also one which the CCP is familiar with but failed to implement.
In short, the party needs intra-party democracy, and not just at the local levels where Chinese leaders have been comfortable with a low-level safe experiment.
The top leaders of the party ought to be voted in by the 370-strong Central Committee members, which is really how it is supposed to work anyway.
Instead, the system ended up perverted and turned on its head. Now, a small group of leaders bargains and decides on who should be in the new top circle, the views are communicated to the Central Committee members, who then dutifully “choose” those very names.
Those several hundred cadres should instead have the power to decide for themselves. This is not alien in communist-run states. It’s been practiced in the Soviet Union of old, and is now a feature of Vietnam’s communist system.
The top vote-getter becomes party secretary, the runner-up becomes premier, and the third-placed candidate becomes president.
The CCP came close to doing the same in 2002, according to Professor Susan Shirk from the University of California, San Diego, in a recent essay in YaleGlobal magazine.
“But scared by the possibility of a loss of control, the party took only a baby step in that direction: It held the election as an informal straw poll to gauge the appeal of potential leaders and used information from the popularity contest to craft a slate of nominees acceptable to the Central Committee selectors,” she wrote.
It was a tepid process which the party repeated in 2007, using a straw poll again to find out which candidate was most favored to replace Hu. The choice was apparently Xi.
Five years later, there has been no indication yet from the party that it is finally ready to take the experiment one step forward and go the Vietnam way.
It points to a regime which remains deeply insecure, with leaders extremely fearful about surrendering their power to control succession, even to a select group of 370.
This is despite the safety of intra-party democracy: Power will still remain with the CCP and the one-party system kept intact.
The Vietnamese way, with its selection rules and procedures, grants the winners a higher degree of legitimacy, and the population at large gets to witness a process of democracy, however limited.
It is possible that such a system could encourage more Bo Xilai-style campaigning from aspiring leaders, using the public and the media to court votes from the Central Committee.
But if populist candidates touting radical solutions should emerge, the other party contenders exist as a check and it is up to them to challenge these ideas and convince the Central Committee voters that theirs is a sounder, more viable option.
Such open debate and resolution are superior and provide greater long-term stability than knives drawn behind curtains and the purges of key players.
The ongoing Bo scandal is a crisis of sorts for China’s elite politics. And at a time of crisis, it is usually helpful to take a hard look into the black box, learn the reasons that led to it, and try to avoid the same mistake.
By Peh Shing Huei
Peh Shing Huei is the China bureau chief of the Straits Times. ― Ed.
(Asia News Network)