Kamis, 22 Maret 2012

Examining China amidst coup rumors and sudden departures...


Bo exit shows China's true colorsBy Benjamin A Shobert

Bo Xilai's exit as the Secretary of the Chongqing Municipal Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has left everyone with an interest in China's ongoing development scratching their heads over what to make of his sudden and forced departure. Confusion inside and outside of China has continued up until this Wednesday as various China-watchers eager to fit Bo's departure into their pre-existing views on China have offered their own interpretations.

The basic facts are not in dispute: during the March 15th National People's Congress, Bo's removal was made public. As a personality, few dispute that Bo was one of China's most visibleand well-known politicians. Bo's popularity owed much to the success of what has been called the Chongqing Model. This pushed for stronger state-involvement in the economy while also making social services and broader questions about social inequalities a more central part of the local government's initiatives. Bo also touched on a sensitive part of China's political legacy when he elevated the spirit of Mao by encouraging and leading the public singing of so-called "Red Songs". Most recently, he had been put in a compromised position by the defection and subsequent arrest of his top lieutenant Wang Lijun after Wang's attempt to take refuge in the US Consulate in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province bordering with Chongqing.

Taken together, three interpretations about what to make of Bo's departure appear to be most common.

The first is that he was too charismatic a political figure who raised the specter of a personality cult that China's leadership was in no position to deal with. Threatened by Bo, they took him out of the national limelight. Second, that Bo's sacking was made necessary because the CCP power center wants to send a message both inside and outside the country about its view of the Chongqing Model. Third and last, that Bo's purge of Wang Lijun was an attempt to stifle a corruption case that would have implicated Bo's family. Caught in the middle of this scheme, Bo was sacked. Most long-time China watchers are quick to point out that the real truth may well be a combination of each of these factors, as well as matters not yet made public.

What is perhaps equally interesting is to reflect on what American and European interest in Bo Xilai's ousting has to say about the questions, concerns and insecurities the West harbors towards China. Amidst an American election pregnant with personality and bombastic rhetoric, the more hidden nature of China's politics leaves many Westerners confused on what to make of this situation, yet eager to understand more. In this respect, much of what is driving American interpretations on the Bo Xilai story is an attempt to better understand which direction China's political and economic reform are going. Largely due to America's current economic insecurity, US-Sino relations have entered a rocky state not seen since the Bill Clinton Administration renewed China's Most Favored Nation (MFN) status. Hidden behind almost every current debate over China's role in the American economy is a deeper question related to uncertainty by American policy-makers about where China's political and economic reforms are going to take it.

Consequently, Beijing's decision in the midst of its stimulus plan to codify long-standing domestic sourcing practices through its Indigenous Innovation policy and to make an effort to apply these specifically to high-profile industries in the clean-tech and life sciences sectors left many in Washington certain that China's economic reforms had come to a halt.

Yet, when Beijing presented its most recent Foreign Direct Investment catalog at the end of 2011, the overwhelming direction signaled by those industries the central government would now allow FDI into was one of openness, not closure. The net of these confusing signals has meant that many in Washington are quick to leap on events like Bo's exit as proof that one or another form of economic reform is the genuine intention of China's leadership. Because Washington has linked economic reforms with China becoming more of a democratic form of government, the trajectory of Beijing's economic reforms are deemed essential to understand.

The politics behind Bo Xilai's departure may be entirely personality driven; however, within the United States, many are also eager to believe that his being sacked points towards China's signal to those outside its borders that the country is going away from the Chongqing model towards what has been commonly referred to as to Guangdong Model. The latter emphasizes even more expansive economic and - in what many believe is much more important - much greater political reforms through greater transparency and openness in government. Patrick Chovanec, a highly thought of Western China-watcher who teaches at Tsinghua University, wrote in the aftermath of Bo's departure, "The temptation is to say it's a victory for the liberal reform camp (as we've frequently heard say) Bo's end spells the end of the Chongqing Model. I'm not sure." If outsiders should not interpret Bo Xilai's exit as a sign of which direction the country's economic and political reforms are going to take, then perhaps it is worth absorbing what this all has to say about the broader discontinuities within CCP. It is common - in particular among those on Capital Hill - to hear the CCP referred to as if it is one monolithic entity. The collectivism found at the core of socialist and communist political philosophy is projected onto China's ruling body, a simple extrapolation that overlooks the many fractures and dissenting voices that do exist within the party itself. Simply because US-Sino relations are at such a crucial and sensitive juncture, it is worth taking away from Bo's forced departure the realization that many voices within the party are pushing for different policies than those Beijing ultimately settles on. Smart American policy-makers will want to manage Western engagement with China so voices of dissent and more reform-minded politicians are not easily ostracized from the country's political process.

Perhaps more than anything else, interpreting what the Bo Xilai incident has to say about the insecurity of China's ruling party is critical for Western policy-makers and politicians to understand. Amid America's own collective insecurities over China's rise, it has become common to view the country's leadership as being unable to do wrong. Whatever issues Western minds may have with Beijing's policies, the results they have been able to create for their country are difficult to argue with; however, beneath the surface lies a much deeper set of discontinuities, problems and ticking time bombs that China must properly manage.

What China's leadership has been able to accomplish over the past 20 years is amazing. If someone were to take the economic results Beijing has delivered and transplant these outcomes into Western Africa, the developed West would hail the results as transformative in the best of ways. Yet, because China today now appears to present a strategic, ideological and political challenge to long-held and deeply cherished Western ideas, the results it has achieved are viewed with more cynicism and suspicion than is merited. Even with these amazing achievements firmly in hand, Beijing knows that much of the country remains stuck in agrarian poverty, that access to basic social services like healthcare remains incomplete and of widely varying quality, and that complaints over government policies is an always percolating problem that could easily derail the progress Beijing has achieved thus far. These realizations, coupled to broader uncertainty over whether China can accumulate enough social and material capital to make it through its upcoming aging demographic storm, have left the country's leaders deeply committed to stability and additional economic growth.

With this in mind, outsiders eager to interpret Bo's exit should recognize that his departure casts additional light on how, even in the midst of Beijing's amazing economic growth, the country's leaders remain deeply aware of how easily one of the many other parts of the country could spiral out of control. Yes, Bo chose to touch one of those live wires when he turned the Chinese people's attention to collectivist anthems that harkened back to Mao and raised the specter of China's always-present populist past. Yes, by doing so he intentionally elevated his public and political personality in ways that undermine the country's political norms. Yes, his particular brand of reform may not be the direction that the central government wants to take.

But, perhaps more than anything else, what Western eyes need to see when they look at Bo's forced departure is the deep and unresolved insecurities, even after decades of successful economic results, that colors the fabric of the country's politics. This realization should be front and center when American policy makers and politicians craft strategies for engaging China. She is a mighty and powerful nation, but China is also nowhere near ready to play the role as leader or villain that too many in Washington seem to want to force upon the country and its leaders.

America's more fractious and divisive political culture may make compromise and progress more difficult to attain than in China, but it also makes differences easier to spot and dissent easier to incorporate. In this way, China's model remains fundamentally more fragile and insecure than America's, a realization Bo Xilai's exit again reminds us. 

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