China’s Communist Party has announced the expulsion of its most charismatic and openly ambitious official, Bo Xilai. Bo, once the Party boss of China’s largest city, will also be tried on multiple charges. He has been detained since March, and his wife, Gu Kailai was convicted last month of the murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood. Heywood, suspected of smuggling money out of China for the Bo family, was found dead in a state-run hotel last November.
The Sept. 28 announcement also included the date of transition for the Party’s 18th Congress, where the ruling organization will unveil its new leadership lineup for the next 10 years. The Congress will start November 8.
Both announcements were undoubtedly meant to signify unity. The harsh treatment of Bo, however, is bound to aggravate the troubles at the top of the Party as he and his allies now have little to lose. Therefore, we can expect infighting to continue. And there is plenty to fight about: although Bo has corpses in his closet, other senior leaders have skeletons in theirs. (Bo’s son, Bo Guagua, released a statement on Tumblr today, saying: “Although the policies my father enacted are open to debate, the father I know is upright in his beliefs and devoted to duty. At this point, I expect the legal process to follow its normal course, and I will await the result.”)
In the past, China had strongmen who could contain internal struggles and impose discipline. This is the first leadership transition in the history of the People’s Republic that has not been masterminded by Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong’s successor, and the lack of a commanding figure shows.
The Party this year has been anything but united as various officials since February have been detained, demoted, or purged. Now, the country’s weak leaders are not strong enough to end the wrangling.
A dramatic example of the breakdown of order was the demotion, announced on the first day of this month, of Ling Jihua, the closest aide of Hu Jintao, China’s current supremo. Ling’s career troubles began immediately after the crash of a black Ferrari into a wall on Beijing’s Fourth Ring Road in the early morning of March 18. Although the Party imposed a gag order on the incident, we have since learned that the accident killed Ling’s son and triggered months of disputes among forces allied with Hu and those of Jiang Zemin, Hu’s predecessor and long-time adversary.
The incident occurred just three days after the Party stripped Bo Xilai of his posts. His removal from power convinced many China watchers that the country’s politicians had finally put the matter behind them. Now we can see that was not the case: the March 18 crash restarted factional infighting, and it took months for Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin, and their allies to determine Ling’s fate, find a successor for his crucial post, and decide the final punishments of Mr. Bo. Yet despite the decisions on Ling and Bo, senior leaders will not have the last word as there is much more to fight about.
As top civilians squabble, senior military officers, who have maintained their cohesiveness, are becoming even more powerful as a group. Beginning as early as 2003, flag officers of the People’s Liberation Army were drawn into settling disputes between Hu Jintao, then the new leader, and Jiang Zemin, who wanted to linger in the limelight. This year, we are witnessing the same dynamic in the current leadership transition as Jiang opposes Hu’s efforts to retain influence even after he gives up his formal Party and state posts.
As the generals and admirals accumulate even more clout, they are starting to act independently of civilians, making their own policies and openly criticizing Party leaders. The escalating disputes between China and its neighbors to the south and east, for instance, appear to be largely the result of belligerent flag officers stoking tensions and forcing the country down a path of high-profile force projection.
And that affects the United States, which has treaty obligations to defend countries in the region—most notably Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines—and which has always been the final guarantor of peace in East Asia. In fact, relations between Beijing and Washington have worsened as China’s military officers have gained influence in Beijing politics.
We have not heard the last about Bo Xilai. Communist Party politics are going off the rails, and the tremors will be felt far from China’s borders.