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China’s New Winner-Takes-All Politics

Jiang Zemin scored a resounding political triumph on Thursday as the Communist Party’s new Politburo Standing Committee was revealed in Beijing. Not only did the former supremo pick China’s next leader, Xi Jinping, but he also packed the rest of the seven-member body with at least four allies and possibly five. Hu Jintao, the just-departed general secretary, now has only one friend he can count on—Li Keqiang—in the Standing Committee, the apex of Chinese political power. 

Jiang also forced Hu to give up his post as chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, adding to the humiliation. Hu’s allies had been predicting that, following Jiang’s example in 2002, Hu would hold onto that important position for two years. Some even said he was going to keep it for five.

Another loser this political season is Bo Xilai, once China’s most charismatic and openly ambitious official. Bo was stripped of his post as Chongqing party secretary in March and then officially expelled from the party this month. He now awaits trial for crimes, and possibly faces execution. His wife, Gu Kailai, was given a suspended death sentence in August.

The party, it appears, has gone back to winner-takes-all politics. Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong’s successor, reduced the cost of losing political struggles. During his tenure, banished high-ranking opponents were retired, not killed. Moreover, in the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao eras, party powerbrokers tried to maintain a delicate balance among the factions in the organization so that no grouping gained or lost too much. Analysts, therefore, once expected Bo would get a comfortable retirement, and there was an expectation that Hu would have a bigger say in picking the Standing Committee.

One consequence of the emerging triumphalism in Chinese politics is that officials now have more incentive to fight all-out campaigns. With the stakes high and little or nothing to lose, they can push the fragile political system closer to the edge. Bo himself did that beginning last February by trying to enlist the military in his struggle to preserve his position. His friend on the old Standing Committee, security czar Zhou Yongkang, is even rumored to have been behind a coup attempt in March.

Zhou probably did not plan a military takeover, but China’s politics are getting nasty nonetheless. That is perhaps inevitable as officials forget the instability of the Maoist years and the infighting that almost brought the party down during the Beijing Spring of 1989. And politics in China is now a much bigger game. As recent Bloomberg and New York Times reporting makes clear, the families of Chinese leaders have become fabulously wealthy.

As the party looks increasingly fragile—even its former cheerleaders are now talking about its possible fall—it looks as if top leaders are less willing to engage in the delicate consensus-building that was a hallmark of the post-Tiananmen period and a major factor in the apparent stability of the party since that tragic event. The overwhelmingly hard-line hue of the just-anointed Standing Committee may reflect the recent “conservative” drift in elite Chinese thinking, but the complete win for Jiang Zemin’s forces nonetheless reveals a new punitive approach in Beijing politics.

The unity of the last two decades is beginning to fade. Politics now are not nearly as brutish as those of the early years of the People’s Republic, but the direction in today’s Beijing is clear.

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