For Beijing, the timing could hardly have been worse. Just days before Vice President Xi Jinping was to take off for his high-profile U.S. visit, the biggest political bombshell in decades erupted in central China. Xi’s meticulously planned trip was intended not only to mark his international debut as President Hu Jintao’s heir presumptive, but also to impress on the world that this coming October’s handover of power—only the fourth such changing of the guard since the 1949 Communist revolution—is a well-oiled done deal. But then the turbulent reality was thrust into the public spotlight by the precipitate flight of Wang Lijun to temporary sanctuary at the U.S. Consulate in Sichuan province’s capital, Chengdu.
Wang was no ordinary target of Chinese persecution. As vice mayor and police chief of Chongqing, he had become China’s most celebrated cop, a folk hero for his no-holds-barred campaign against organized criminals and their alleged protectors in that sprawling megalopolis. He was the strong right arm of Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, one of China’s most powerful men. But on Feb. 2, Bo abruptly fired his ace enforcer—and Wang evidently had so little faith in Chinese justice that he took the desperate step of fleeing to the Americans for protection. Seventy carloads of armed police pursued him from Chongqing to Chengdu, where they surrounded the Consulate until Beijing angrily demanded their withdrawal and dispatched Qiu Jin, the deputy head of China’s State Security Ministry, to escort the fugitive, first-class, to Beijing for interrogation.
China’s websites have gone wild with speculation over Wang’s flight. What did the fugitive police chief tell the Americans? What did they tell Beijing? What is he now telling the party’s enforcement arm, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection? The commission had already opened an investigation into party corruption in Chongqing. Above all, will he implicate—perhaps destroy—his former patron? Chongqing’s municipal government tried clumsily to discredit Wang by announcing that he was suffering from “mental stress” and was “receiving vacation-style treatment”—assertions that were met with derisive hilarity in the Chinese blogosphere and only reinforced the widespread assumption that Bo was trying to make Wang his fall guy.
The drama has exposed a ferocious battle over China’s future at the commanding heights of the party. Until now the struggle has been kept under wraps, although most Chinese know how to interpret the party leaders’ telltale harping on “unity of the leadership” and “harmonious society.” Now, however, the battle for top party slots is out in the open, and all assumptions about its outcome have been upended. The infighting is assuming some of the intensity of the ideological disputes that preceded the Cultural Revolution. At stake is not only the balance of the party’s leadership, but also the country’s future direction—whether China will take a more statist and nationalist path or stay on the road to liberalization at home and abroad. In sum, this is the party’s most crucial moment since Deng Xiaoping set out to transform China after Mao’s death.
As the standard-bearer for the Chinese left, Bo is a key figure in this contest. His admirers include both neo-Maoists and party diehards who look back with nostalgia on the days of Maoist dictatorship, accusing the party of having lost its moral bearings along with its revolutionary fervor. In the opposing camp are the party’s modernizers, whose most prominent representative is Wang Yang, the party secretary of southeastern China’s industrial powerhouse, Guangdong province. Secretary Wang is a vocal advocate of “free thinking and mind liberation” and the relaxation of bureaucratic and party controls that hinder development. He urges that the rule of law be strengthened, insisting that the swelling discontent in Chinese society is better met by addressing the causes than by bashing heads. Intervening after a violent uprising against land-grabbing public officials, he promoted the leader of the protests and—in a practically unprecedented move—ordered that the villagers be allowed to choose their own representatives in genuinely free elections.
Bo has hitherto been viewed as virtually unassailable. As the son of Bo Yibo—one of the eight “immortals” of the 1949 revolution—the Chongqing party secretary is what the Chinese call a “princeling,” an heir to extraordinary political influence and privilege. More than that, however, he’s a ruthlessly effective political operator in his own right, and he enjoys substantial personal support within the military. His much-trumpeted “Chongqing model” champions old-fashioned Marxist egalitarianism, classic socialist values, and strong party control over each individual’s life. His enthusiasm for sending city youth down to the countryside to “learn from the peasants” recalls the Cultural Revolution, as does his call for a revival of “Red Culture” that echoes the propagandistic musical spectacles of Mao’s third wife, Jiang Qing.
But he’s popular, too, largely because during his tenure Chongqing has not only posted growth rates as high as any in China, but also has made massive provision of housing and health care for workers, in a country where social safety nets barely exist and the gap between rich and poor is obscenely wide. Despite the distrust aroused in Beijing by his brand of red populism, Bo was considered certain to secure one of the coveted nine seats in the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo at this coming October’s five-yearly Plenary Congress of the Communist Party. His many detractors call him a “mini Mao” and warn that, given that much power, he could roll China backward to Mao-style dictatorship.
To take that route would be cynical even by the ruling party’s standards: Bo’s father was disgraced and badly tortured in the Cultural Revolution. His mother was beaten to death. Yet the son has cultivated the “red” image and has but courted a powerful clique of party hardliners who call themselves the Children of Yenan, after the Red Army’s refuge in the days of the Long March. A few weeks before Wang Lijun fled to the American Consulate, some 1,200 of these cognac communists gathered at Beijing’s Heaven and Earth theater. The keynote speaker was Hu Muying, the daughter of an intellectual who was close to Mao. Denouncing the “class polarization, rampant corruption,” and “moral decline” she linked to China’s economic opening-up and reform, she asked: “How come those who have been overthrown and exterminated have returned today?” The revival of “evils that were exterminated at the founding of New China” is a crisis for the entire party, she said, and the incoming leadership must “correct the wayward course. Without this there will be no future.”
Vice President Xi has yet to declare his hand. So far he has straddled the factions, cannily refraining from specifics on policy. A year ago he publicly lavished praise on Bo for his revival of Red Culture, but that may not mean much. In China, you take care to praise your enemies in public; it’s from behind and in the dark that you stab them. Xi has yet to prove that he shares the convictions of his father, Xi Zhongxun, who personified “reform and opening up” as Deng Xiaoping’s man in the groundbreaking economic test lab of Shenzhen. Still, there’s every reason to believe that he adheres to Deng’s strategies of gai, reform of the Maoist dictatorship, and kai, opening intellectually and to the outside world.
We are witnessing one of the climacterics of Chinese history, comparable to the 1971 plane crash that killed Mao’s fleeing henchman Lin Biao and drained the Cultural Revolution of its energy. No one knows how this one will turn out. The party’s determination to engineer a flawless transition is rooted in China’s bitter experience of abrupt and violent change. The only certainty is that the gloves are coming off.
Rosemary Righter is an associate editor at The Times of London.