China’s Political Storm

NEW DELHI – As senior leaders are purged and retired provincial officials publicly call for Politburo members to be removed, it has become clear that China is at a crossroads. China’s future no longer looks to be determined by its hugely successful economy, which has turned the country into a world power in a single generation. Instead, the country’s murky and increasingly fractured politics are now driving its fate.

One need look no further than the ongoing power struggle in the run-up to this autumn’s planned leadership changes, or official figures showing that rural protests have been increasing at the same rate as China’s GDP. The sudden downfall of Bo Xilai – and the call from Yunnan Province for the removal of the two Politburo members closest to him – is just one example of the no-holds-barred infighting now taking place in Zhongnanhai, the closed leadership compound in Beijing. Indeed, the internecine squabbles are said to be so vicious that there have been rumors, denied by the regime, that the Communist Party’s congress at which a new president and prime minister are to be anointed this autumn, might be postponed.

The Party’s abrupt vilification of Bo after lauding him for his leadership in Chongqing has fueled public cynicism over his orchestrated downfall and laid bare the leadership’s thin ideological core. If China is to preserve its gains in global stature, it must avoid a political hard landing. For the time being, at least five different scenarios are conceivable.

Re-equilibration: The Party protects its legitimacy, keeps the military subordinate, and manages to put a lid on popular dissent. In other words, the status quo prevails for the foreseeable future. This is the least likely scenario, owing to deepening internal Party disagreements and rising popular discontent.