05 Apr 2012
Bo Xilai was a political heavyweight, and Chen Guangcheng was a human rights activist. They are two completely different men on seemingly opposite trajectories. Yet their fates have combined to generate a political crisis in China.

First of all, the two cases have demonstrated that the rule of law in China is a façade, concealing a rampant abuse of power by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cadres. A rising political star, Bo was widely expected to enter China’s supreme policymaking organ, the CCP Politburo Standing Committee, at the 18th Party Congress late this year. But it turns out that he had ruthlessly gotten rid of anyone or anything in his way, leaving a record of gross violations of the law during the 20 years he had served in a multitude of senior positions from Governor of Liaoning Province to Minister of Commerce and Party Secretary of Chongqing, the mega-city of southwestern China. Chen, a blind human-rights activist, had been persecuted and imprisoned under trumped-up charges. After his jail terms, he and his family had been placed under illegal detention by the local authorities until his escape on a rainy night in April.

Since China embarked on the path of reform in late 1970s, it has become a national consensus that the rule of law is essential for China’s development as well as the legitimacy of the CCP’s rule. Although Bo’s and Chen’s cases differ distinctly, together they have shaken the very foundation of the party-state as people begin to question the party’s commitment to, and ability to, implement the rule of law.

Second, the two cases have cast serious doubt over the governance of the CCP and whether the CCP leadership is capable of managing rank-andfile cadres. Bo’s gangster-like behavior was not unknown, yet it did not hinder his stratospheric rise in the political system, becoming one of only 25 elite members of the CCP Politburo. Chen’s illegal detention and persecution by local authorities had drawn global attention, and the use of thugs to violently expel those who came to visit and support Chen had become a public scandal. Revealingly, not only was the party leadership unable to address the illegal acts of local officials, but the detention of Chen and his family also exposed the vested interests among various government agencies and interest groups. Indeed, if the CCP could not even keep its cadres in line with the law as well as the party’s own disciplines, how could it govern the nation?

Third, Bo’s scandal and Chen’s redemption were first spread through informal channels via the Internet only to be “confirmed” by a few lines from the official statement. It is absurd that the CCP’s propaganda agencies are trying to block the transmission of well-known facts even as various elite groups are leaking so-called “inside stories” or spreading misinformation to manipulate public opinion and advance their own games. While the “rumours” are increasingly flourishing, the government’s propaganda remains tellingly boring, making substantial damages to the credibility of the CCP leadership and political system.

Last but not least, the two cases have revealed a deep division among the topmost leaders, with substantial policy implications for China’s future. To be sure, power struggles and policy disputes spark leadership splits in virtually all countries. But the CCP political system can hardly handle leadership splits, especially when they become public. The nature of the CCP’s single-party rule—under which political power is monopolised and the policymaking process is centralised and exclusive—rests upon the unity of the party leadership, or at least a facade of it. All the political crises in China since the CCP came to power in 1949––the Gao (Gang)-Rao (Shushi) incident in 1954, the toppling of Peng Dehuai in 1959, the launch of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the Lin Biao affair in 1971, the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976, the ouster of Hu Yaobang in 1986, and the Tiananmen crisis in 1989––were triggered by leadership divisions. Although the “collective leadership”––a system established in 1990s to ensure that decisions are based on a consensus of topmost leaders––has improved the regime’s capability of preventing leadership division, it has not changed the nature of the CCP political system, hence its vulnerability to major differences among the ruling elites.

As the CCP prepares for the 18th Party Congress at which a new generation of leaders will come to power, the ongoing political crisis caused by the Bo and Chen cases has again demonstrated the absolute necessity of meaningful political reform. Otherwise, as Premier Wen Jiabao has said on several occasions, the party-state will find itself at a “dead end”, with a catastrophic impact on China and the world at large.

Only through political reform can China’s development and stability be sustained. After all, modernisation will inevitably give rise to popular demand for political participation. This has been the experience of every other country which has successfully modernised and created an educated middle class. Moreover, an economy driven by market forces demands the rule of law to function, and that cannot be reasonably established without a transparent and inclusive policymaking process. Ironically, the more successful the CCP is in promoting the economic development that underpins its legitimacy, the stronger will be the popular demand for greater political participation, which threatens its existence

Serious political reform––to restructure political institutions to increase political participation and move towards greater political pluralism–– cannot neither be achieved overnight nor without costs. The time has come for the Chinese leadership to map out a serious and long-term plan, and act accordingly. In this sense, the Bo and Chen cases provide a precious opportunity. But it would take real courage and vision to seize it.

Huang Jing is a Professor and Director of Centre on Asia and Globalisation (CAG) at the Lee Kuan Yew. He is an internationally recognised expert on Chinese politics, China’s foreign relations and security issues in Asia-Pacific. His email is