There are signs the Year of the Dragon is already stirring up trouble in China.
Economic growth seems to be faltering, and many analysts believe that the property bubble that has been inflating for the past decade may burst. But even more worrisome are recent signs of political tumult in Beijing.
Earlier this week, the Chinese blogosphere erupted in speculation about a possible coup attempt. There were reports of gunshots in Beijing, of unusual paramilitary activity near party leadership compounds. Internet censors removed such posts, only adding to the sense of confusion. Although these rumors were almost certainly only that, it seems possible that a factional war has broken out within the Communist Party leadership itself. If so, the ramifications are huge. At stake is nothing less than the future of China itself.
China’s history over the past three decades has been relatively smooth when judged by the standards of the previous century and a half. From 1839 to 1978, China was wracked by major rebellions, wars with Western powers and Japan, civil war, a massive famine, and the Cultural Revolution. In 1978, however, a new group of officials came to power within the Chinese Communist Party, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. They repudiated the excesses of Maoism and adopted the reforms that have led to three decades of unprecedented peace and prosperity. To be sure, there have been bloody events, most notably the Tiananmen Massacre and violent crackdowns in Xinjiang and Tibet. But the late 20th century and the early 21st century represent the first sustained period of stability for China in generations.
Now it seems possible that the party ideology that has enabled that peace and prosperity may be in danger. The trouble started with the sudden dismissal of rising star politician Bo Xilai on March 15. As has been previously noted in The Diplomat, he was the charismatic party chief of Chongqing; telegenic, ambitious, and connected. He had been viewed by many as a shoe-in for a seat on the nine-strong Standing Committee, the highest ruling body in China. His removal from power was a rare public humiliation.
His ouster seems to have set off a larger factional struggle. Precisely what is happening is impossible to say for sure, but according to Chinese microblog reports, which have since been removed, the conflict appears to involve two factions. On the one hand is the current leadership, those who ousted Bo Xilai and who have since spoken out against him. They are a group of pro-modernizing high officials who have held important positions in the Politburo for decades, including Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao. On the other is a much less clear coalition of a nationalistic bent, which appears to include generals in the People’s Liberation Army as well as officials close to the Minister of Public Security, Zhou Yongkang.
If a faction that supports Bo does manage to seize leadership, the implications are profound, because Bo represents worrisome trends. He was a partisan and chief architect of a neo-Maoist ideology, and he proclaimed publicly that the party should return to the values of Maoism. It was, indeed, Bo’s espousal of this ideology that worried party officials enough to have him ousted.
Ever since Deng rejected Maoism for pragmatic policies of economic and technological growth, the moderate, modernizing strand of party ideology has held the upper hand. A pro-Bo coup could signal the end of the China we’ve known for the past thirty years, namely the more open, engaged, market-oriented, modernizing China.
If nationalistic and jingoistic socialist leaders come to the fore, they have at their disposal far more geopolitical and economic power than Mao had. China is now a superpower. How would modern day Maoists use its might?
For now, we can only watch and wait, and hope that the dragon year will eventually bring peace with its tumult.
Tonio Andrade is a professor of history at Emory University. He is the author of the recent book 'Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China's First Great Victory over The West'.