The Paranoid Style in Chinese Politics

HONG KONG – Henry Kissinger, who learned a thing or two about political paranoia as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser and Secretary of State, famously said that even a paranoid has real enemies. This insight – by the man who will be known forever for helping to open China to the West – goes beyond the question of whether to forgive an individual’s irrational behavior. As the scandal surrounding Bo Xilai’s dramatic fall from power shows, it applies equally well to explaining the apparently irrational behavior of regimes.

Most reasonable people would agree that the world’s largest ruling party (with nearly 80 million members), with a nuclear-armed military and an unsurpassed internal-security apparatus at its disposal, faces negligible threats to its power at home. And yet the ruling Communist Party has remained brutally intolerant of peaceful dissent and morbidly fearful of the information revolution.

Judging by the salacious details revealed so far in the Bo affair, including the implication of his wife in the murder of a British businessman, it seems that the Party does indeed have good reason to be afraid. If anything, its hold on power is far more tenuous than it appears. Bo, the former Party chief of Chongqing, has come to symbolize the systemic rot and dysfunction at the core of a regime often viewed as effective, flexible, and resilient.

Of course, corruption scandals involving high-ranking Chinese officials are common. Two members of the Party Politburo have been jailed for bribery and debauchery. But what sets the Bo scandal apart from routine instances of greed and lust is the sheer lawlessness embodied by the behavior of members of China’s ruling elites. The Bo family, press reports allege, not only has amassed a huge fortune, but also was involved in the murder of a Westerner who had served as the family’s chief private conduit to the outside world.