A Year of Living Dangerously

China sees months of behind-the-scenes infighting in the wake of the Bo Xilai scandal.

President-in-waiting Xi Jinping (L) and premier-to-be Li Keqiang in Beijing, Nov. 15, 2012.

China's year of murder, palace intrigues, fast cars and beautiful women has kept the general public and political pundits alike on the edge of their seats.

It ended with the swearing in of a new generation that is set to lead the ruling Chinese Communist Party for the next decade, and a fall in the fortunes of liberal reformers and hard-line Maoists alike.

After months of behind-the-scenes infighting in the wake of the scandal surrounding disgraced former Chongqing chief Bo Xilai, China is now under the control of a highly conservative leadership, and prospects for political reforms look remote, analysts said.

The replacement of outgoing president Hu Jintao with vice-president Xi Jinping and the succession of vice-premier Li Keqiang to the number two slot being vacated in March 2013 by outgoing premier Wen Jiabao was predictable.

Internal power struggle

Less predictable, and less visible, was the internal power struggle that followed Bo's ouster from office on March 15, sparked by an embarrassing Feb. 6 visit to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu by his former police chief and right-hand man Wang Lijun.

While the trial of Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in August, and the jailing of Wang for 15 years for abuse of power and defection in September provided carefully scripted public glimpses of where things were headed, rumors of a coup also took the Internet by storm, prompting censors to shut down comments on microblog posts in late March.

"As well as Bo Xilai's implication in the Gu Kailai murder case, there was also the hushed-up crash of a Ferrari on March 18, in which the son of [top official] Ling Jihua died," political analyst Lin Baohua said in another broadcast commentary.

"This power struggle was not just ferocious; it was all carried out under wraps," Lin said. "This gave rise to periodic rumors of a military coup."

The result, he said, was that Hu Jintao was sent home from the 18th Party Congress empty-handed in sharp contrast to his predecessors, who have typically held onto the top military job for a few years more.

"The fact that [Xi] has taken over the leadership of the Central Military Commission earlier than is customary shows that the military has been destabilized," he said.

"They have had to take special measures to ensure a smooth succession."

Experts said China's new leadership is now divided across Xi's "princeling" faction, which also once included Bo and those who rose to power along with retired president Jiang Zemin, whose power base is in Shanghai.

"The outside world was in agreement that as the drama of China's leadership transition unfolded at the 18th Congress, that we were witnessing a huge, internal power struggle within the Party," Wang Dan, former 1989 pro-democracy leader and U.S.-based China scholar, said in a recent commentary broadcast on RFA's Mandarin service.

Wang, and other commentators, said that the Bo scandal sparked the sidelining of leftist, Maoist opinion and also of anyone associated with Hu.

"The princeling faction won the support of the Jiang clique, and routed the Youth League faction [of president Hu]," he said.

"It is clear that the next five years in Chinese politics will be dominated by the princeling faction to a large degree."

'Profound lesson'

Though the leadership pledged on the eve of the 18th Party Congress to draw a "profound lesson" from its worst political scandal in two decades, any meaningful change to the system that produced the fiasco remains unlikely.

Analysts said the Bo scandal had been damaging to any future prospects for political reform, because it had enabled Jiang to bolster his political influence.

And a report in the New York Times detailing U.S.$2.7 billion in hidden assets held by the family of premier Wen Jiabao further weakened the reform faction, effectively locking them out of the highest decision-making body, according to political analyst Wu Xuecan.

"They managed to get rid of Bo Xilai, and then they sorted out Wen Jiabao," said Wu. "They refused to allow [reformers] Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang a place on the Politburo standing committee."

"They struck out at both sides, left and right, because that's good for stability," Wu said.


Xi's "southern tour" to the birthplace of economic reforms in Shenzhen shortly after the Party Congress sparked widespread speculation that the new leadership would usher in a new era in Chinese politics.

But analysts said Xi's trip was more a form of homage to late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, who used it to launch a new wave of economic openness, and that political innovation was unlikely to come from the president-in-waiting.

"Xi's southern tour sent out a signal that we could expect reform, but what kind of reforms could they implement? The Communist Party elite has monopolized the economic lifeblood of China, and devoured the fruits of economic growth," Wu said.

"There would be huge opposition to reforms which would allow for a more equitable division of wealth."

Xi, in his speech on taking over as General Secretary and as head of the Central Military Commission, warned of "severe challenges" ahead for China, including a growing gap between the political elite and the ordinary people.

"Under the new conditions, our party faces many severe challenges, and there are also many pressing problems within the party that need to be resolved," he said in a live broadcast on state-run broadcaster CCTV.

He singled out "particularly corruption [and] being divorced from the people" as challenges facing the Party

U.S.-based veteran dissident Wei Jingsheng said that Bo had become very powerful before the scandal was exposed, on the back of opposition among ordinary people to the rise of China's political elite, and that the Party would soon face another deep crisis if it didn't address the growing gap between rich and poor.

"Just because they struggled Bo Xilai away at the 18th Party Congress doesn't mean that the elite are going to have things all their own way," Wei said.

"Society will be forced to make concessions to the poor, or life will be hell for everyone," he said.

Reported by Luisetta Mudie.


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