May 11, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

The Return of Politics

The drama of the harrassed blind Chinese activist who is asking for help to get out his country and come to the US has captured the attention of the small share of the media that has an interest in China. It has even overshadowed the much more dramatic tale of the ouster of the ex-Communist Party  rising star Bo Xilai. The fate of Bo, however, is much more important for Chinese politics and might be telling a lot about its trends.

The Bo scandal has all the ingredients of a best-selling novel:  power, intrigue, money, and murder. So much so that he made the cover of “Time” magazine this past month. CP secretary of China’s Chongqing municipality, Bo was ousted in March and expelled from the Politburo in April. He is under investigation for corruption and abuse of power, and his wife, lawyer and author Gu Kailai, is under detention for accusations that include arranging for the murder of a British businessman.

Beyond the better-than-fiction surface, the story also shows cracks in the seemingly apolitical structure of the CP, as Fareed Zakaria wrote at one of his recent columns.

“We don’t think much of the [Communist] Party as a political organization these days”, says Zakaria. It is dominated by technocrats obsessed with economic and engineering challenges”. It wasn’t always like that, he contends; the Revolution began with “pervasive” traits of “court politics, intrigue, ideological posturing and mass politics”. Only in the 1970s and 1980s, with Deng Xiaoping, a conscious decision was made to “end the high drama of Chinese political life”.

The author makes it sound like the political purge was successful until now. “For two decades, China has been run like a company, not a country”. It makes sense at first glance, but there is an inevitable factor that has always been present and cannot be dismissed: human nature, and human choices. Parties and countries are not machines, and as much as you try, you can’t completely eliminate the social aspects of politics. Bo may have shed light into it, but there have always been other political wolves operating in China. He is far from the first or only charismatic or corrupt leader around. That much should be obvious.

It doesn’t take out of the fact that the international scandal, let’s repeat, shows the cracks. These don’t surface unless there is a lot going on behind covers. If being more overtly “political” is a trend, perhaps it is associated with the growth of China’s world influence. The larger the empire, the more it has room for new types of leadership to emerge, and more and more control is needed to keep it in the original path.

It is worth noticing one thing here: when we say that “there is a return to politics”, the word “politics” mean conniving activities, corruption, populism and the such. “Politics in China is xenophobic, populist, nationalist, messy and certainly unpredictable –like politics everywhere”, argues Zakaria.

But where is the good part of politics, the search for legitimacy, the conquering of support? Have we become that cynical? Maybe an injection of “politics” would not be so bad for the PC after all. It would also be great if the PC could, for example, change positions with some international bodies that really should not be so “political”. Take the IMF, for example. That is one institution that could learn something from what China tried to be.

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1 Comment

  • I don’t buy Zakaria’s premise at all. The CCP may do a good job of keeping politics out of the news, but claiming that the people who govern China today or in the past don’t operate according to their political interests is absurd and wholly inaccurate.

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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