Chinese politics can get feisty. The rest of the world should take interest.
When Rick Santorum (hopefully) loses the Republican presidential primary in (or before) August this year, the rest of the world will (hopefully) breathe a sigh of relief. They will relax ever so slightly knowing that despite America’s most zealous, some degree of sense can still prevail. They will know that the options the superpower’s citizens have in November will both be at least partially sane.
The sacking of Bo Xilai, the party chief in Chongqing, a municipality in central China, is at least as consequential. Mr Bo, like Mr Santorum, is a polarising figure. He was, like Mr Santorum still is, vying for one of his country’s most powerful offices. Like Mr Santorum, he represents an unbridled conservatism that is popular among some but absolutely crazy in the eyes of others. Mr Bo ran high-profile popular anti-corruption campaigns; some say they were politically selected and have led to injustices. He revived nationalistic “red songs”, reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution which was regarded by many but not all as one of modern China’s darker periods.
The mode by which Mr Bo was taken down is admittedly unfamiliar. We know why his hopes for appointment to the powerful Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party are dashed (the Wang Lijun incident ruined his chances), but not who made the call. China’s “elections” are basically for show; the real process by which politicians make it to the top is unclear. The best we have to go on in this case are the allusions Premier Wen Jiabao made to Mr Bo (the risk of another “tragedy like the Cultural Revolution”) in his address to the National People’s Congress.
That makes it a little harder to follow than the flagrantly open process of America’s presidential contest. But to be fair, America’s method of choosing its president is hardly easy to understand. We get its fiendish complexity mainly because we’ve spent so much time watching it. With time, that will become true of China. It may not be democratic, but there are still power struggles, competing ideologies and a constitutionally-defined political system. That the Politburo Standing Committee conducts its workings in secret shouldn’t matter either: cabinets of almost every country have their discussions in private and present a united front to the public.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the Communist Party has internal divisions. That is true of all political parties: just ask the American Republicans or the British Tories. Nor is it a weakness: optimal solutions often come from robust debate. Westerners may not even be unanimous in which Chinese politicians they support. The left in the West, for example, may resonate with how Mr Bo despised China’s acceptance of growing inequality as part of economic growth. The economically liberal may prefer the direction taken by the Hu-Wen administration. Some foreign observers may admire Mr Bo’s yearning for Mao-like nationalism.
Whichever way, his failure to get to the Politburo Standing Committee is a blow for the left of China. The corollary of that is a (partial) victory for more reformist lines. That matters. Obviously, foreign businesses will want to know whether they’ll be welcome and what sort of trade opportunities to expect. But the domestic affairs of the growing superpower matter too: how China’s growing middle class fares affects world markets and human rights groups naturally take a keen interest in one-sixth of the world’s population. China can justifiably be proud of its progress in the last two decades. That could all be slowed or even reversed by an ill-chosen leadership.
China’s political system may differ completely from every system devised by a Western country. That shouldn’t put us off; if anything, it makes its domestic battles even more enthralling. When a leading political figure in America gets booted out of the race, people take notice. We should afford China the same attention.