Monday, November 5, 2012

Mao's Ghosts Walk Again in China

Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution in Washington has interpreted the decision of the Beijing regime to put fallen “Princeling” BoXilai on public trial as an “outstanding result” of political reform. He sees it as a gain for the rule of law in China that the top political leadership of the country did not settle the matter internally.

Bo was the influential Communist Party Chief of Chongqing, widely seen as one of the country’s top future leaders. Then his wife murdered a British money launderer and his police chief fled to an American consulate asking for asylum. Earlier this year his wife pleaded guilty to murder and was given a long prison sentence; now Bo is on public trial.

I think it is a mistake to see this as an advance for the rule of law. I doubt if those of us looking in from outside, or indeed, most Chinese, will take any comfort from the fact that “200,000 registered lawyers now have a voice and many of them are calling for improved rule of law and constitutionalism.”.

The public trial is necessary because international publicity made it impossible to hush up the matter and Bo has a “Leftist” following unlikely to accept his quiet disappearance.

So what to do with a demagogue whose popularity – not his criminal use of power – made the corrupt billionaires leading the Party uncomfortable?

Have a show trial.

Instead of Red Guards screaming invective and assaulting the victim, have “lawyers” go through the motions of prosecution, defense and conviction. Only the form has changed; the whole thing is a scripted drama for public edification.

Other ghosts of Mao’s time might also come alive.

China-born Cheng Li says there is “a heated discussion” going on among Chinese top brass “about the current risk of revolution in the country.” In that context, “conservative hardliners within the Communist Party leadership may ultimately decide to resist political reform at all costs.” That could make policy differences and personnel appointments “contentious” and even cause “factional infighting to spiral out of control.” Far from signaling a new political maturity of the Chinese leadership, the Bo trial may “polarize Chinese society and enhance the risk of socio-political unrest rather than build momentum for legitimacy enhancing reforms.”

For China's neighbors none of this is good news. It is very likely that a major political crisis in China could lead the endangered leaders to create a diversionary foreign crisis; that could easily spill into regional war.

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