The New York Times reported earlier this week that the Bo Xilai scandal has created "a deep fear among millions of Chinese... that their government may be dissolving into a criminal state."
Are they kidding?
The scandal is many things. It is intriguing, complex, significant, and even sexy. Like a bad soap opera, it has murder, corruption, business deals gone bad, a drunken prince, wild rumors, and a villain that makes Lady MacBeth look tame.
But -- despite what the Times and other media outlets are saying -- it has not much changed the way Chinese view their government. The scandal will cause some reshuffling at the highest ranks of the Communist Party. Some reforms will be made. People will grumble for a while. And then things will go back to normal.
This scandal is a big deal, like Enron was a big deal. Or Troopergate. Or Iran-Contra. Or Teapot Dome. Did these scandals cause Americans to feel their nation was a "criminal state?"
I wouldn't say they did. (In fact, if my students here in Brooklyn are any indication, these scandals are just about entirely forgotten. The name "Enron" lives on, but bled of any content.)
When Western media report on Chinese scandals, they decontextualize them to such a degree that melodramatic conclusions are all but inevitable. From Guo Meimei to Sanlu milk, there's always something about to bring down the curtain and reveal the sad little wizard running the Communist Party.
Or at least that's the subtext in reporting packaged for Western consumption. Our media often seem caught in a feedback loop of schadenfreude and narcissism.
But looked at from a Chinese perspective, things are more circumspect. My Chinese friends do not see the Bo Xilai scandal as anything more than high-stakes politics. They know politics is a dirty business and that many people use government to enrich themselves. This upsets them. Overall, however, they see things moving slowly in the right direction.
To understand scandals in China, westerners would do well to remember that China is not a banana republic. There is no wizard behind a curtain. This is not a country run by thieves and warlords. China has a stable, highly effective government. Yes, there are officials who are rotten through and through. There are also officials who are serious about reform. China has its Jimmy Carters (men beyond reproach) and its Oliver Norths (grotesque halflings, oozing around in filth).
To be fair, there are a lot of folks in the latter category in China. The rotten officials number in the thousands, and they are a deplorable bunch. But I never got the sense while living in Guizhou that the rotten apples represented the norm.
So don't believe the hype. The Bo Xilai scandal will no more bring down Beijing than Watergate brought down Washington.