Bo Xilai and the Politics of the Purge
The recent downfall of Bo Xilai has gotten me extremely interested in Chinese politics. There are a few reasons for this, but by far the dominant one is that there is so much politics going on in China entirely sub rosa. This is one of the more interesting parallels between China today and my subject of study, Russia/the USSR – authoritarianism & totalitarianism don’t actually reflect the absence of politics at all. It’s like an (admittedly clichéd) iceberg, where what you see only represents 10% of the mass. All we see is a deposed regional Party Secretary. What’s actually there may be a dark and twisted saga of crime and corruption in the New China…or perhaps a decisive battle in the war for China’s soul. In the Soviet Union, a minor edit to a historical photo (removing NKVD Director Yezhov, for example) could tell many stories – the fall of Yezhov, the war for control of the Bolsheviks, and even the whole sick twisted structure of Stalinism and Communism in the USSR.
It’s admittedly kind of silly to speculate on what the removal of Bo Xilai “means”. I don’t know enough, and really nobody does (except a very narrow circle of CCP insiders). But the attempt of his police chief to defect to the West suggests it was indeed kind of a big deal. Last week, there was a bit of a to-do on Chinese twitter that the government had launched a coup in order to dispose of “New Leftists” sympathetic to Bo. This was obviously incorrect…but let’s be clear, it’s not prima facie ridiculous. There are varying degrees of “coups”, and it’s a common mechanism of transferring power in authoritarian states. See, for example, the removal of Khrushchev for an example of a fairly gentle coup – Khrushchev was reasonably worried that they would just shoot him rather than politely force him out.
The ultimate point is that contrary to Tom Friedman’s vision of enlightened technocrats showering a grateful country with high-speed rail, politics doesn’t disappear in authoritarian states. Politics is central to human affairs, and in authoritarian states it is an extremely high-stakes pursuit. If you mess up, you can be sent to prison or shot in the blink of an eye. And contra Tom Friedman, it’s certainly not like in times of political struggle the Chinese bureaucracy keeps plugging along with the aforementioned high-speed rail and economic liberalization. Instead, at this very moment the fate of Chinese economic development rests in large part on a bitterly personal fight amongst the elite over the legacy of the Cultural Revolution. I’ll take democracy, thanks.
Final note: Three weeks after being “fired”, Bo Xilai’s whereabouts are unknown.