What China’s Leaders Fear Most
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What China’s Leaders Fear Most


The news that Chinese prosecutors have filed formal murder charges against Gu Kailai, the wife of disgraced former Communist Party boss of Chongqing Bo Xilai, has conjured up tantalizing images of a sensational trial at which the dirtiest laundry of the Bo family would be mercilessly aired.  But before aspiring writers of a political thriller rush to purchase the rights to the Bo saga, its obvious entertaining value notwithstanding, we need to pause and reflect on one dimension of the Bo story that has not received sufficient attention: the insecurity of China’s top rulers.

While most people understandably cheer the downfall of characters like Bo, arrogant, hypocritical, cruel, and greedy apparatchiks when they are in power, the political implications of their demise and the manner in which they are purged are not those of a morality play. On the contrary, how the powerful lose power and what happens to them afterwards can tell us a great deal about the nature of the political regime in which they thrive and perish. In the case of the current Chinese regime, the ugly purge of Bo reveals many of its dark sides: corruption, lawlessness, hypocrisy, and ruthlessness. Such qualities of a regime make it illegitimate and undermines its durability.  However, rarely do we view political power struggles from the perspective of a regime insider. As a result, we often fail to appreciate how the insecurity of top elites constitutes a fatal threat to the very regime that has made and unmade their political fortune.

Before we analyze the degree of insecurity of the ruling elites in contemporary China, it may be useful to refer to another era in which top elites of the Communist Party lived in constant fear for their lives and those of their families — the reign of Mao Zedong from 1949 to 1976.  The Maoist regime was a purge machine in perpetual motion.  Any member of the party’s hierarchy, regardless of his seniority or loyalty to Mao, was dispatched the instant he became a threat to Mao’s power.  No rules governed such purges.  In nearly all cases, the victims included not only the disgraced official, but also his innocent family members, who were thrown in jail or sent to labor camps.  Indeed, Bo’s family story during the Cultural Revolution was a typical case.  His father spent a decade in prison.  Bo himself was jailed, too, during the Cultural Revolution.  His mother committed suicide.

After the end of Maoist rule and the return of political sanity in China in the late 1970s, the party’s elders worked very hard to restore the party’s unity.  One keen insight they drew from the self-destructiveness of the Maoist era was that elite insecurity greatly exacerbated the power struggles at the top.  Besides the absence of a due process that could protect the basic rights of the members of the ruling elites, the degree of arbitrariness, unpredictability, and cruelty to which they and their families were subjected was horrific and inhumane.  These conditions meant that once a member of the top ruling elite lost power, he would lose everything, including his life and liberty and those of his family members.  This made the price of losing power infinite.  Thus, elites would fight with the utmost viciousness to avoid losing.

To improve the political security of the party’s top elites, Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues devised some elaborate schemes, both formal and informal.  The formal rules include specific procedures governing the removal of senior officials.  The informal ones include, among other things, no jail time for losers in power struggles and no persecution of their families.

Of course, like Chinese laws, the formal rules were mostly honored in breach.  Deng’s dismissal of Hu Yaobang, the reformist Party chief, and of Zhao Ziyang, another reformer, violated the Party’s own procedure.  But until Deng placed Zhao under 15 years of illegal house arrest in 1989, he had essentially stuck to the rule of no physical harm or loss of liberty for political adversaries.

In the post-Deng era, elite security has declined significantly.  Not only has the procedure through which senior officials are removed from office become more opaque, arbitrary, and politicized, but also the price of losing power has increased dramatically.  Purges now come with jail sentences, not quiet or comfortable retirement.  The loser’s family members face imprisonment as well.

The first victim of post-Deng purges was Chen Xitong, a Politburo member and Beijing’s party boss who was jailed on corruption charges in 1995. His son was jailed as well. Mr. Chen recently released his memoir.  While trying to show that he had nothing to with the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, he revealed that his secret trial was perfunctory and he called the proceedings “fascist.”  The second high-profile victim was another Chen, Mr. Chen Liangyu, one-time high-flying Shanghai party boss and Politburo member.  Like Chen Xitong, Chen Liangyu was felled by corruption charges and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

What has happened to Bo Xilai and his family thus may not seem unusual.  As expected, the decision to try Gu Kailai merely signals that the Communist Party’s top leadership has already determined her guilt and punishment.  Bo Xilai, now languishing in the Party’s infamous shuanggui system (indefinite extra-legal detention), will almost certainly face the same fate as the two Chens.

Some observers may object by saying that purging senior officials on corruption charges is quite different from sacking them because of ideological disloyalty or factional power struggle, as was the case during the Maoist era.  This difference may be technically true but substantively and politically irrelevant.  In terms of fostering a dreaded sense of insecurity among the top ruling elites, corruption charges and alleged political offenses are no different.

First, like political offenses, corruption charges can be concocted.  The alleged evidence against the two Chens, for example, revealed two far-fetched and weak cases.  It is common knowledge that the two Chens fell not because of corruption, but because of their political ambitions and disloyalty.  The same could be said of the causes of Bo’s collapse.

Second, because China’s top elites, who personally or directly may have little involvement in corrupt activities but who all have family members and relatives who engage in questionable or illegal business deals, no one at the top is absolutely safe.  At the moment, the Party seems to have drawn the line at the Politburo Standing Committee level — Politburo members are not safe, but Politburo Standing Committee members enjoy absolute immunity, because purges at the highest level of the Party would be too destabilizing.  But since this arrangement is not ironclad, who knows when the Party will decide to go after one of the top nine leaders in the future?

Third, once brought down in a power struggle, even China’s top rulers lack minimal legal protection.  They cannot pick lawyers or have the ability to challenge the charges against them in an independent judiciary.  Their verdict and penalty are typically decided, not by professional judges after the conclusion of the proceedings, but by top political leaders behind closed doors.

What this analysis reveals — and what the case against Bo and his wife shows — is that political security for China’s top rulers today has deteriorated so much that, in some crucial ways, they might feel that they are back to the bad old Maoist days.  Elite disunity and vicious infighting is now the rule, not the exception. This cannot be reassuring news for a regime ruled by individuals whose daily nightmare is that they will one day become another Bo Xilai.

September 17, 2012 at 16:44

My father escaped from China in the late 40's at the time when the communist were consolidating power. He has always said that the communist leaders themselves are the most corrupted and what they preached publicly and what they so is entirely different.
Remember that the Chinese people by nature has always used corruption to advance their means. Corruption in China will never go away because its in the blood.

August 3, 2012 at 22:59

RU, CN … insecurity/instbility causes a governance vacumme that only a militarized authority can control and seek suprem power using xenophobic-fear as propaganda.
Nasi…Jews, KKK…NonWhites, Christian/Islam infidels, CN…NonCN …

August 3, 2012 at 21:46

Interesting that Bloomberg has been blocked in China since it carried a story about the wealth of the next leader, Xi's, family (USD 500 million +). Also , there is an article in the South China Morning Post today (and elsewhere) quoting a speech made by him criticising the use of Party members using their positions to amass wealth.
Their system is rotten to the core-even worse than the US. Much worse, in fact. 

August 2, 2012 at 01:31

China is a country of C's: Corruption, Coercion and Control.
The amount of money that the top Communist Party members with the help of their relatives and their cronies have "parked" outside of China is immense. It's not just the Bo family (by the way, it's not jus Guagua Bo, but Bo's older son from a previous marriage also lives in the US). Singapore is a favourite money laundromat for a lot of "big crooks". The hypocritical thing is that many Western countries turn a blind eye to such things. Besides private fortunes of the Chinese ruling class, I would also include investments by Chinese SOE's (the Communist Party controls them). This "globaliisation of dirty money and wealth" by the 1% is a new phenomenon. I totally disagree with Mao Tsetung, but at least he was "straightforward" and the West was not an "accomplice" of Chinese Dengian-Orwellian two-cats-double-speak-hypocrisy.
How long can China be ruled by a Corrupt Coercive Controlling Communist Oligarchy?

August 1, 2012 at 20:00

Ken Puck I would normally agree with you that to move the attention to an external source such as a international threat usually unites the country. But in the case with China I believe it would have the opposite effect . As soon as the Chinese regime point their guns at someone else than its people there will be an uprising. After all still with guns to the heads there are thousands and thousands  of mass incidents each years in China. 
And an attack on Taiwan will never take place, China wants Taiwan , its economy , its technology and its strategic point in the south china sea. Chinas plan is to take it from the inside and swallow Taiwan by its economy and use of weak leaders like current Ma Ying Jeou  and of course the media who is largely pro unification and financed by China. 
A war would perhaps be won by China but Taiwan would never give up and it would eventually destroy Taiwan . As well with Chinese international reputation , it would cost a lot for China both money and lives , add that all the countries around china sea would aid Taiwan or at least make moves on disputed territory , Japan would never want to see Taiwan lost to China and US ships would instantly be deployed, in the eve of an occupation of Taiwan there would be resistance from Taipei to Gaoxiong ,( I would personally volonteer). Back home in China civil dissobediance would be widespread probably riots in Tibet and Inner Mongolia to name a few. 
It would be a very very foolish move. 

August 1, 2012 at 18:14

Hardly able to blame the dictator/s, because they dictate. Hardly able to pity those elites, because they chose to stay in the political war field.

August 1, 2012 at 17:10

I concur with you and with the author's answers to the title of the article.
The PRC, despite some discernable reforms, still relies on "one void and three pillars". The void is the Ministry of Justice. The pillars are the Ministries of Truth, of Fear and of War. The recent crystal clear warnings published on the PLA web site show that the Ministry of War is prepared to openly take control, not content anymore of the string-pulling role in the backstage.

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