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Rule of Law Worries Behind Bo Xilai Purge

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The cracks that are beginning to appear in the opaque machinations of the Chinese Communist Party are yielding some new clues that clarify the forces at work behind the purge of Chongqing's populist leader Bo Xilai.

One important clue comes from reports in reputable outlets such as the New York Times and the South China Morning Post about a key meeting on March 7 in which Party elders made the decisive push to dismiss Bo.

Key among those elders was Qiao Shi -- a former security chief and former head of the National People's Congress and member of the Politburo Standing Committee who is known as a champion of the "rule of law."

This March 7 meeting, and its results, reveal the sway that the Party elders, though retired, still hold over the political process. Qiao and his allies may not be in power but they continually strive to "guide" the long march of China's political system away from any path that might lead to a repeat of the catastrophic Cultural Revolution.

There are three key pillars to their way of thinking.

First, collective leadership with term limits and mechanisms for a peaceful transfer of power. This is aimed at preventing a "bad emperor" like Mao returning through a populist cult of personality.

Second, establishment of the "rule of law" that will prevent the arbitrary abuse of power and stem corruption. The absence of any institutional restraints on Mao, the "Gang of Four" and the Red Guards reduced the whole country during the late 60s and early 70s to a paranoid war of all against all driven by the tantrums of teenagers and the daily whims of the red emperor.

Third, non-ideological one party, meritocratic-based rule that eschews "class struggle" as the key driver of history. Even the "reformist" elders associate multi-party competition at the national level with the chaotic factionalism during the Cultural Revolution, which made unified and decisive leadership impossible, thus paralyzing China for a decade. (Many of the elders, however, favor more autonomy and pluralism in local elections, as we saw recently in Wukan).

"Class struggle" against "capitalist roaders" in the Cultural Revolution targeted not only anyone associated with past wealth creation (landlord grandfathers), but also anyone with expertise based on merit instead of politics -- from teachers to scientists or musicians. Politically correct "reds" were pitted against the so-called elitist "experts" in a senseless fit of totalitarian libertarianism orchestrated by Mao and his minions. Universities were shut down. Students didn't learn. China was cut off from science and technology. In the end, this is why the Cultural Revolution had to come to a close: it offered no route to the future. It was pure destruction without creation.

Such divisiveness, as the elders see it, can only be held in check by dropping "class struggle" and making the Party an organ of "the whole people" open to all qualified comers on a non-ideological basis. Consensus should be forged within its ranks instead of battling outside. For them, this is far more effective way to govern than publicly mobilizing different constituencies of the body politic against each other.

It is obvious that the Party elders like Qiao have fallen short in some goals while succeeding in others. There is still a long way to go from "rule by law" to "rule of law." Corruption has grown, especially in the provinces, not diminished. The one-party pillar is too often reinforced through fear, surveillance and repression instead of more intra-party democracy. And, of course, Bo's populist message resonated because of the vast inequality that has accompanied China's rapid rise.

(Also, the role of Qiao Shi, and his motives, should not be oversimplified or over-interpreted. He was in a well known struggle with Jiang Zemin in 1997. Jiang was allied with Bo Yibo, Bo Xilai's father. Qiao was on the losing end and sent off to retirement. Since some regard Jiang as a sponsor of Bo Xilai, they also see Qiao's motives as settling scores.)

In any case, if the allegations against him are true, Bo Xilai seems to have crossed many lines -- building a personality cult, the disregard of law to target inconvenient entrepreneurs or political enemies in the name of fighting corruption, inciting class struggle sentiments.

The purge of Bo Xilai thus seems, from the outside at least, to be a reaffirmation of the course Qiao and other have been plotting for decades. Bolstering institutions and practices that check the abuse of authority, including the discipline of collective leadership instead of populist charisma, are the bottom line.

The cynical will surely laugh at the idea of casting the Bo episode as a struggle over the rule of law in a country where a famous artist like Ai Wei Wei, no less all the unfortunate unknown dissidents, can be abducted and held incommunicado without charge for months.

But it is undeniable that key figures in the Chinese establishment are pressing forward to make change within the system.

Qiao Shi's point of view was made explicit long ago. In a rare interview in the Great Hall of the People back in 1997 when he was Chairman of the National People's Congress, Qiao told me:

An important reason why the Cultural Revolution took place and lasted 10 years was that we had not paid enough attention to improving democracy and the legal system.

It was from this bitter experience that, by the end of the 1970s, we began to stress the need to improve the legal system and laws, to maintain the stability and continuity of this system of law and make it very authoritative.

According to the constitution of China, all power in the country belongs to the people, and the people exercise state power through the National People's Congress and local people's congresses at various levels.

To ensure that the people are the real masters of the country, that state power is really in their hands, we must strengthen these institutions and give them full play. At the same time, it is necessary to improve grass-roots self-government so people can manage their own affairs...including giving autonomy in elections [for the People's Congress] to both urban and rural residents.

Noting that he didn't mention the Party at all in our conversation, I asked: "In this vision of a 'democratic system of law' in accord with Chinese socialism, will the law ultimately be above the Party, or the Party above the law?" To the audible gasps of his handlers seated behind us, Qiao replied: "No organization or individual has the prerogative to override the constitution or the law."