HONG KONG – From the outside it seems as though China’s leadership is facing its biggest crisis in a generation with the country’s most prominent political star, Bo Xilai, the czar of Chongqing, suddenly dismissed from all of his posts while his wife and a household assistant stand accused of the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
This was preceded by the dramatic flight of Bo’s former head of police, Wang Lijun, to the American consulate in Chengdu, where he provided evidence of wrongdoing by the Bos. After Wang was denied political asylum, he was taken into the custody by Chinese security officials.
This is the stuff of murder mysteries, not China’s staid, boring politicians.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Internet has been alive with rumors, including reports of attempted coups, troop movements and serious divisions among the top leaders — the nine men who make up the Communist Party’s Politburo standing committee.
All of this is happening as China prepares for a once-a-decade political transition, as President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and five other members of the Politburo standing committee are set to step down from their party posts within months and be replaced by a new generation of leaders.
Bo Xilai had hoped to join this august body, but now his hopes have been dashed. There is no doubt there is much jockeying behind the scenes to fill the seven seats. Two members, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, are young enough to remain, with the former expected to succeed Hu as party leader and president while the latter will replace Wen as premier.
The Chinese government insists that all is well and there is no factional fight within the party. Rumors, it says, are just that — rumors — and should be squelched, with some Internet sites being shut down. China blames Westerners for fanning the flames, saying that Western analysts, used to political divisions in their own countries, look at China through a distorted lens.
Thus a commentary in the Global Times newspaper said that Western political culture encourages diversity and “creates conflicting political forces through such diversity and then seeks to balance them.” But, it said, “China’s political system sets harmony as the basis of national governance. As soon as a gap arises, mechanisms aimed at narrowing it and building a consensus will start to work.”
The Bo Xilai incident, the Chinese authorities insist, far from reflecting a power struggle, shows that rule of law is alive and well. The party is taking steps to ensure that the same view is echoed across the country, including by military and security organs.
The People’s Daily, described as the party’s flagship newspaper, said: “Everyone is equal in front of the law. There is no privilege in the system and no exceptions in terms of regulations. Anyone who infringes upon laws shall be convicted and punished.”
Yet, it is patently untrue that everyone is treated equally before the law. For one thing, party members are treated differently from nonmembers.
Thus Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was investigated by the party first, and only after the party was satisfied was she turned over to state authorities. Thus the official announcement said Bo’s wife and an aide, Zhao Xiaojun, “have been transferred to judicial authorities on the suspected crime of intentional homicide.” That is to say the party decided on the charge before the judicial authorities were even aware of the alleged crimes. And if the party had decided against prosecution, the case would never have gone to the state.
As for her fate, Stanley Lubman, an expert in Chinese law, had this to say on his Wall Street Journal blog: “In the past, when high-ranking CCP officials have been punished, they have first received heavy party discipline and expulsion from the party, and were then prosecuted and given heavy jail sentences.”
This case will be no different. The party claims that no individual or organization is above the law, yet it appears that the party itself is above the law. It can detain individuals, deprive them of their liberties and interrogate them for weeks and months without authorization from the state legal system. Since it now says that China is a country where rule of law holds sway, it should allow the law — and law enforcement — to do its work without party interference.
This will mean not only halting all political interference in investigations — including whether to investigate — but also allowing the judiciary to do its work without interference by the party.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist. Email: Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @FrankChing