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Bo Xilai trial exposes truth about China’s system

by Minxin Pei

Bloomberg

Almost 18 months after it roiled the Chinese political establishment, the Bo Xilai scandal is drawing to a close. The trial of the former Chongqing Communist Party chief could have already started.

If anything, the ignominious end of Bo — once viewed as a shoo-in for a spot on the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body — is an anticlimax. Even if the trial were public, we would witness no courtroom drama.

Bo, who hasn’t appeared in public since March 2012, will almost certainly be presented as a broken and penitent man. A guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion.

The only outcome worth guessing is Bo’s sentence. Judges will have no discretion over this matter. The seven-man Politburo Standing Committee will already have determined how much time Bo will serve. (Although the corruption charges against Bo could carry a death sentence, the party has an unspoken policy of not executing any purged Politburo-level leaders.)

If Chinese leaders hope that the trial will put an end to the most sordid political scandal since the death of Mao Zedong, they are wrong. Although they will no longer speak of Bo after he is sent to the infamous Qincheng Prison outside Beijing, where the Communist Party imprisons disgraced senior officials, questions raised by Bo’s case will continue to dog the party and undermine its credibility.

As is the case with all political scandals, the Bo Xilai affair has exploded several important myths about one-party rule in China. Among these myths, the most alluring and widespread is the idea that the post-Mao leadership has perfected a system of managing internal conflict and maintaining elite unity.

Proponents of this idea, dubbed “authoritarian resilience,” argue that China’s leaders have bypassed the need for democracy. Instead, they employ devices such as term limits, a regular rotation of appointments, systematic screening and mandatory retirement as effective means of divvying up power among competing groups and individuals.

On paper, these arrangements seem flawless. But in practice, they can be gamed, and the competition for power inside an opaque regime that resists binding, well-acknowledged rules can be especially fierce. As Bo’s case shows, in such a system, the greater the prize, the more ruthless the fight. Winners prevail not because of their merits, but because of their ability to cobble together a more powerful coalition.

As for the losers, it is hard not to pity their spectacular fall. They not only get booted out of office but also must suffer the most humiliating (though not necessarily undeserved) airing of their personal failings. In fact, Bo is not the first member of the Politburo to fall victim to a purge since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. Two former Politburo members were also sent to jail for corruption and debauchery — the same crimes Bo has been charged with.

Despite the image of a consensus-driven leadership, there is simply no political loyalty at the top — just as in the bad old days of Mao’s rule.

When Bo was riding high between 2009 and 2011, practically all the senior Chinese leaders — except for Hu Jintao, then the general secretary of the party — visited Chongqing to endorse Bo’s neo-Maoist model of development. But once Bo’s political prospects were doomed by his police chief’s attempted defection to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, these supposed friends and allies turned against him.

The denouement of Bo’s saga will also help destroy yet another widely accepted myth about the Communist Party — namely, that the regime is a meritocracy. This idea has a tight grip on Western politicians and business executives who have interacted personally with top Chinese leaders. Adjectives like “smart,” “dynamic” and “cosmopolitan” are generously applied to officials like Bo.

It remains a puzzle to China-watchers how these Westerners, who speak no Mandarin and normally spend just an hour or two with characters like Bo, could have reached such definitive assessments about their capabilities.

Even a casual examination of the records — not the resumes — of leaders similar to Bo would quickly reveal that they all boast mediocre careers. What has lifted them above their often more talented peers are powerful patrons.

That brings us to the real reason for Bo’s fall from grace. “In the land of the blind,” the old saying goes, “the one-eyed man is king.” Although much praised for cleaning up Chongqing, Bo hardly stood out as an administrator. He did have outsize ambition, took big risks and used ruthless tactics against enemies. For a time, this brazenness catapulted Bo to the front. Rivals knew better than to challenge him.

Fear, though, unified his foes and ultimately became Bo’s undoing. As the former swaggering princeling prepares for his final humiliation in a Chinese courtroom, he should understand better than anyone the flaws of a system that made — and destroyed — him.

Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California. E-mail: mpei@cmc.edu.