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Power Struggle in China

The attempted defection of Wang Lijun, recently the top cop in the western city of Chongqing, suggests that China’s ongoing leadership transition will be especially turbulent. 

On the 6th of this month, Wang entered the American consulate in Chengdu, the capital of neighboring Sichuan Province, seeking asylum. He spent a day there. Incredibly, his old boss, Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, essentially invaded Sichuan by sending hundreds of his armed security troops to surround the Chengdu consulate in an unsuccessful bid to apprehend Wang. 

It’s no surprise that Bo wanted to grab hold of his onetime trusted assistant. Wang evidently was willing to turn over sensitive documents about Bo or his wife, and that looked like it would mean the end of his career. The charismatic Bo has not hidden his desire for a seat on the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in China. According to the State Department, Wang left the consulate grounds “of his own volition.” He is now believed to be in the custody of state security officials in Beijing after Washington evidently turned down his asylum request.

Why did Wang try to defect? The rumor mills in China are working overtime, but it’s a fact that Wang is famous for arresting about 6,000 triad gangsters, corrupt officials, and others at the behest of Bo. Wang’s tough law enforcement, along with Bo’s political maneuverings, threatened, among others, senior Beijing leaders. Some are even whispering that Hu Jintao, China’s current top leader, engineered the extraordinary events of last week. If that is true, then Xi Jinping, supposedly China’s next supremo, may be vulnerable, as he is believed to be more closely aligned to Bo than to Hu.

In the fall, China’s political transition formally begins at the 18th Communist Party Congress, when the Fourth Generation leaders, led by Hu, are slated to give way to the Fifth. A week ago, every China watcher would have told you that Xi would definitely head the new generation and that the transition would be “smooth.” Now, the handover might well be marked by uncertainty and turbulence instead.

In fact, the Wang incident indicates that factionalism, evident in recent years, is worse than most observers thought. As the Communist Party tries to downplay ideology, its members are drifting into coalitions and finding something new to fight about. Bo is member of the “Princelings,” a group comprising offspring of party leaders, and Hu Jintao a part of the Communist Youth League group. Xi is considered a member of the former grouping but has ties across several factions, including the Shanghai Gang. Last week’s unexpected events, when factional infighting became visible in public, indicate that these groups have yet to agree on the Fifth Generation leadership lineup.

We should not be surprised at the internal squabbling as this is the first handover of power in the history of the People’s Republic not masterminded by Deng Xiaoping. Deng, after making quick work of Mao’s designated successor, picked Jiang Zemin to succeed himself and Hu to follow Jiang. Now, there is factional discord in large part because there are no elders of the stature of Deng to settle matters among the overly ambitious corp of contenders for power.

After Wang Lijun was whisked away to Beijing, it appeared to most observers that Bo’s career would end soon. Yet he is refusing to give up and is reportedly seeking the help of certain generals. This may be a winning tactic. After all, the military looks like it has become the most influential bloc in the Communist Party, in part because it has remained relatively cohesive while civilian leaders have fought among themselves.  

The rise of the military—really, the partial remilitariziation of politics and policy—and factional splintering is resulting in a change in the nature of the regime. As this process of change continues, we can only wonder what happens next.

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