In this season of political campaigns, the Republican and Democratic candidates have been pointing their fingers at China as one of the chief causes of America’s economic malaise. At the same time, China is struggling through its own leadership transition, while facing the daunting problems of economic slowdown, intraparty division, public discontent, a highly charged territorial dispute with Japan and serious misgivings over US policies.
On the last Friday in September, after considerable delay, the Chinese Communist Party announced that its Eighteenth Congress would be held on November 8 to approve a predetermined slate of new party leaders. Agreement on the slate is of utmost importance, because the new leaders will most likely run the country for the next two five-year terms. Normally, at this point the members of the CCP Politburo’s Standing Committee—the highest decision-making body in the country—would already be agreed upon, but this is the first time in the CCP’s history that its top leaders are not being picked by either Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping. Without an arbiter of such stature, different factions within the party continue to squabble over the distribution of power. The most serious challenge to the status quo has been mounted by Bo Xilai, the former party chief of Chongqing (population 32 million), who lobbied openly for a seat on the Standing Committee.
Bo offered his “Chongqing Model” as the formula to address public anger over official corruption and wealth polarization, which is threatening China’s stability. In Chongqing, Bo had imprisoned thousands of corrupt officials and dispensed benefits to the poor and the elderly. An integral part of his program was “attacking dark corrupt forces and singing red songs,” in an effort designed to bring China back to the glory days of the founding of the People’s Republic. Ultimately, Bo was challenging the party to return to Mao’s socialist ways by studying his teachings, lest it be overthrown by a crisis of legitimacy.
While many believed Bo to be a demagogue and as corrupt as other officials, his supporters in the party and in the country’s intellectual circles argued that he was the only top leader who recognized the urgency of the national crisis and was doing something about it. Even liberal reformers who might otherwise have been suspicious of Bo used his challenge to the establishment as an opportunity to push through their own reform agenda, such as the establishment of a national social security system for the elderly. After all, Bo was responding to heightened public anger over the CCP’s abuses, echoing the sentiments of ordinary citizens tired of officials enriching themselves through their control of industries, of officials’ relatives making millions through their connections and showing off with their Ferraris, of the misappropriated billions spirited out of the country to the United States, Australia and Canada through offshore bank accounts.
The frustration of the common people has manifested itself in a dramatic increase in massive demonstrations, in a country that normally has zero tolerance for public displays of disaffection. In the early 1990s, there were 8,700 such “mass incidents.” Their number grew to more than 87,000 in 2005 and an estimated 180,000 in 2010. These demonstrations have also become more daring. In late 2011, residents of Wukan, in Guangdong Province, kicked out brutish local officials and “occupied” their village for two weeks. This summer in Qidong, near Shanghai, thousands of citizens angry at the bribetaking that allowed the construction of a toxic waste pipeline stormed city hall, overturning cars, beating up police officers and humiliating the mayor by stripping off his shirt.