As the U.S. presidential election season progresses, there is another upcoming change in leadership of equal importance half way around the world. China's Communist Party is choosing new top leadership for the first time in a decade.
The Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao administration is winding down, and what appears to be an orderly transition is underway as Xi Jinping, the current Vice President, is slated to be elevated to the top post of the Communist Party. Yet below the apparently tranquil surface there is a more turbulent current as the forces of Chinese power politics begin to make waves. At stake is the political direction of China: Will the new generation of leadership take a course toward political reform or a retrenchment into the hard-line stance of the past?
Whereas the media has increasingly turned its attention to Xi in order to catch a glimpse of the path the Chinese leadership will take, there is a growing calamity surrounding the status of high-level Communist Party member Bo Xilai. On March 15, Bo was unceremoniously removed from his position as Communist Party leader of Chongqing, a bustling municipality in western China of over 30 million people. His dismissal has created a swirl of rumors that involve an alleged attempt at a high level defection, the mysterious death in Chongqing of a British national, and even insinuations of an attempted coup d’état in Beijing.
The recently sacked Bo has become known for his affinity for the trappings of the bygone Maoist era – mass line politics and public choruses singing communist anthems. He came to prominence by tackling corruption and for his efforts at cleaning up Chongqing’s organized crime subculture, but in so doing he trampled on citizen’s rights and flaunted the rule of law. Corruption, in the end, may be what has undone Bo as his saga of rise and fall and possible rise again plays out like a Beijing opera. The wily and outspoken Bo Xilai cannot be counted out yet. He holds sway with a portion of the Communist party that may not be altogether happy with the decline of communist ideology in the country.
Whereas Bo has breathed new life into politics of personality, Xi does not look back to Mao Zedong’s political legacy quite so fondly. Xi has reportedly been quite frank about his family’s suffering during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and this lends more credence to the idea that a CCP under his leadership will continue the efforts of the ‘Harmonious society’ promulgated during Hu’s tenure. Xi also shares a reputation for fighting corruption, one gained as Shanghai’s political chief. But whereas Bo has built a reputation for his robust personality, Xi represents a moderating force and his ascent can be seen as the Politburo leaning towards a judicious figure with liberal sympathies.
As it goes, the resulting turmoil surrounding the Bo affair brings to light the dichotomy of the Chinese political character. Bo’s camp represents the radical side of China’s Communist Party past in which transparency and rule of law are optional, while the more staid Xi faction appears, so far, to represent a group more committed to further market and financial reforms as well as a growing role in international diplomacy. When the tides of the current political tempest recede, the result will help define the future of Chinese-American relations and may be telling of which direction Chinese leadership may go.