Great Leap Backward: China’s Leadership in Crisis

As April passed into May this year, one electrifying story replaced another in the consciousness of the Chinese public. The first involved a ruthless official struggling for control of the ruling Communist Party and the second a solitary activist who, without this being his stated intention, challenged the one-party state from below. Soon, the two narratives began to merge, posing a threat of the first order to China’s increasingly fragile political system.

During the night of April 22nd, Chen Guangcheng, a blind human rights advocate, climbed over walls and made his way through a heavy security cordon that had, for nineteen months, illegally ringed his home, where he had been confined, beaten, and denied medical treatment. In the following days, he traveled almost four hundred miles to the Chinese capital over closely watched highways, moved from safe house to safe house, uploaded a YouTube challenge to the country’s premier, and somehow managed to get past Chinese guards into an American diplomatic compound.

The Chinese government moved quickly to suppress news of Chen’s “great escape,” as the country’s “netizens” termed his amazing journey from confinement in rural Shandong to “the safest place in Beijing”—a reference to the US Embassy. Yet overworked censors could not prevent Chinese, both online and off, from trying to link the Chen incident with an even more significant series of events.

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Conspiratorial Chinese minds began to allege that the blind dissident was able to complete his flight to safety only because he had help from Zhou Yongkang, the member of the Politburo Standing Committee in charge of domestic security. Zhou, the theory goes, knew that Chen would try to leave his heavily ringed home because just hours before Chen made his attempt, officials had monitored his cell-phone calls to other dissidents involved in the plan. The internal-security boss then let the blind man escape, according to this view, because he knew the incident would embarrass Wen Jiabao, the country’s premier and the target of Chen’s YouTube video, and Hu Jintao, China’s current ruler.

Why would Zhou seek to undermine Hu and Wen? Because the pair had put Zhou under investigation for trying to unseat them through a coup. Reports indicate that at least two people, Wang Lijun and Gu Kailai, have implicated the security boss. By now, the names of these two figures are known throughout China because of their association with the infamous Bo Xilai, the central figure in the other great event roiling Chinese public life.

In the beginning of February, Bo had sent hundreds of armed security troops from Chongqing, where he was the Communist Party secretary, across provincial lines to the Sichuan capital of Chengdu. There, his army surrounded the American consulate and began a tense standoff to prevent a once-trusted aide, Wang Lijun, from defecting to the US and handing over papers incriminating Bo and his wife, Gu Kailai, in activities ranging from graft to murder.

Wang, formerly the chief of Chongqing’s police, had apparently asked for asylum but eventually left the consulate after spending a night. Officials from the Ministry of State Security escorted him to Beijing. Since then, he has been branded a traitor.

Bo did not fare much better. The party stripped him, the most charismatic politician of his generation in China, of his Chongqing post and suspended his membership on the Central Committee and the Politburo. He is now under a nationwide investigation: agents for the Ministry of State Security and the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection have been sent to Dalian, where he served as mayor, and to Chongqing to investigate. The detention of businessmen with links to him indicates that the party is building its case.

Moreover, the authorities have also targeted his wife, Gu. She has been “transferred to judicial authorities” on suspicion of poisoning Neil Heywood, whose body was found in a seedy state-run hotel in Chongqing in November last year. The allegation is that the forty-one-year-old Briton, a Mr. Fixit, had sought a ten percent fee to smuggle hundreds of millions of dollars out of China for Gu.

Gu has, since the first allegations surfaced, been linked to other murders, as has her husband. London’s Daily Mail, for instance, reports that Bo may have downed a Chinese jetliner with one hundred and twelve people on board in May 2002 so that he could get rid of a single person, the wife of a political opponent.

Bo has not been accused of murder, however, but of “serious discipline violations,” especially the firing, without Beijing’s approval, of Wang Lijun as police chief. Wang, it is said, is presently telling state investigators the seamy side of Bo’s high-profile—and popular—crackdown on gangsters in Chongqing.


Is any of this true? The country’s journalists, bloggers, and writers are both uncovering facts and making them up at a fast clip. So facts and rumors, one right after another, are heard, circulated, and indiscriminately believed and denied.

To grab control of the runaway national conversation about breathtaking corruption and heinous crimes, Communist Party propagandists are circulating their own version of the truth. They have had to release sordid details to justify the prosecution of Bo’s wife, who may have been targeted because it was politically unacceptable to pin the blame on Bo himself, a member of the Politburo. In the process, official spinmeisters, by highlighting Heywood’s murder, have focused the Chinese public on the corruption and depravity of their leaders.

By now the explosive allegations, each one more lurid than the one preceding, have transfixed the Chinese public. The unrelenting flood of news, whether or not factual, and the assorted stories, rumors, and gossip have accelerated the slow-motion delegitimization of party leaders. “My father, an old Communist, feels very sad about Bo’s downfall, because he can’t understand how the party could contain so many bad people for such a long time without anything being done,” a former government official told the New York Times. “He isn’t the only one who thinks so. There must be millions of people today wondering the same thing.”

While the Bo story was further eroding support for the party, Chen Guangcheng was showing the Chinese people that no one need live in fear. Those who didn’t buy the theory that Zhou Yongkang aided Chen’s daring escape were beginning to talk about the nation’s incompetent security forces. And the great danger in that development was that, as journalist Fred Coleman noted about the last days of the Soviet Union, “once the fear was gone, the system could not last.”

Indeed, the Chinese system will not last if Beijing leaders cannot contain the factional infighting over Bo. Willy Lam, the veteran China watcher, reports that last year Hu Jintao had asked the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection to investigate Wang Lijun for corruption. Hu, of the Communist Youth League faction of the party, apparently triggered the inquiry to put pressure on Bo, a member of the “princeling” group, composed of descendants of early leaders of the People’s Republic.

There are various theories why Hu wanted to target Princeling Bo. Some analysts think he did so because Bo was too much like his professed idol, Mao Zedong—too flashy, too strong-willed, too dangerous—for the comfort of China’s current crop of bland, technocratic leaders. Others point out there was obvious discomfort at Bo’s “Red” campaigns, which appealed to growing Maoist nostalgia in China.

The other theory is that Hu wanted to undermine Xi Jinping, another princeling, to prevent him from taking over as China’s next supremo. Xi, after all, was friendly to Bo and was not Hu Jintao’s first choice as his successor. Jiang Zemin, former ruler and current boss of the Shanghai Gang party clique, seems to have forced Hu to accept Xi over his first choice, Li Keqiang, now designated to be the next premier. So Hu, by targeting Bo, perhaps thought he could get a do-over, another chance to elevate Li to the top spot.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it appears that party leaders are now willing to risk destabilizing their system in audacious bids for power. This new boldness is especially evident from the assorted allegations that Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai were planning a coup and that Zhou aided Chen’s dramatic escape to Beijing. It is clear, whatever the truth of the stories carried by social media, that sharp Maoist political tactics are making a comeback in China today. As in the early days of the People’s Republic, leaders are evidently playing for keeps, willing to employ the roughest means.

This political transition from the so-called “fourth generation” of Chinese leaders, led by Hu Jintao, to the fifth, presumably under the command of Xi Jinping, was supposed to be “smooth.” Just about every observer maintained that the Communist Party had institutionalized itself with rules, limits, practices, and guidelines and had thereby solved the one problem that had plagued authoritarian regimes from the dawn of time, the issue of succession. Yet Bo, Zhou, Wang, Gu, Hu, Li, and others are proving the world’s China watchers wrong and showing that the Chinese political system has not progressed far beyond its Maoist roots.


The Communist Party has gone through worse periods of political instability—the Cultural Revolution, the Lin Biao affair, the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, for instance—but in these cases it had a towering figure able to guide it back to safety. This is the first crisis without such a leader in power. In fact, this is the first leadership transition in the history of the People’s Republic that has not been masterminded by Deng Xiaoping. Deng, after making quick work of Mao’s designated successor and choosing himself to lead China, picked Jiang Zemin to succeed himself and Hu Jintao to follow Jiang. Deng was not, however, in a position to select Hu’s successor, and now there is no elder to contain the infighting. As a result, the selection process has degenerated into a no-holds-barred death struggle.

At this moment, the only institution that can stabilize the country is the military. Feuding civilians are turning to the top brass to settle their increasingly out-of-control disputes. When Wang Lijun was at the US consulate in Chengdu, for instance, Bo Xilai ran to the headquarters of the 14th Group Army in Kunming while his forces surrounded the American compound.

And top party leaders consulted with the military before they decided to strip Bo of his remaining party positions. In early April, Jiang Zemin sat down with military officers before meeting with Hu Jintao and other members of the Politburo Standing Committee to discuss Bo’s fate. And when he finally met with Hu and the civilians, Jiang did so at the headquarters of the Central Military Commission in Beijing. The choice of location, of course, was powerfully symbolic.

It’s no wonder that in recent months Hu has issued a series of public reminders to the generals and admirals that they had to be loyal to the party. Yet whether they are loyal or not, they have become markedly more powerful. Not only are top military officers becoming the final arbiters of civilian political disputes, civilian leaders are relying on the Army’s troops to maintain order in an increasingly volatile society.

As a result, Chinese policy is defaulting to positions that military leaders favor, and Beijing’s noted belligerence, especially evident since the end of 2009, looks like it is largely the result of generals and admirals playing more prominent roles in decisionmaking.

Just as Bo Xilai and his opponents are tearing the party apart from the top, activists like Chen Guangcheng are challenging it from below. Athough Chen in particular had no apparent intention to roil the regime, he has inadvertently done precisely that by creating a controversy—and one more issue for ambitious leaders to fight over. In early May, he left the American Embassy saying he wanted to stay in China, but security officials immediately threatened him and his family, and those threats helped convince him to change his mind and seek safety in the US. The Chinese government then split, with the Foreign Ministry believing he should be given quick permission to go and the Ministry of State Security determined to keep him in the country.

The internal disputes will not end now that Chen has left China. The harsh treatment of members of his family in Shandong and the dissidents who helped him flee promise to create additional controversies for the country’s leaders. The blind activist evidently does not have an intent to bring down the regime, but his acts, occurring at this turbulent time, could have momentous implications nonetheless.

In sum, it looks like too much is happening too fast for China’s fractured government. As Assistant US Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said in early May while he was in Beijing, “China is moving into a period of enormous complexity.” 

Gordon G. Chang is a World Affairs blogger and the author of The Coming Collapse of China.

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