[Viewpoint] Closely watching changes in Beijing

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[Viewpoint] Closely watching changes in Beijing

The saga over the spectacular fall of a former senior official of the Chinese Communist Party appears to go on forever. The plot only gets more twisted with betrayal, corruption, conspiracy, a love triangle and murder and even spreads to the United Kingdom and the United States. But the underlying main theme is the power struggle at the top echelons of China.

In China, the Communist Party is synonymous to power. After the party was founded, the Red Guards and the People’s Republic of China were next. The military was established before the state, and the party before the military. The party therefore is at the pinnacle of the country’s power pyramid.

The power struggle in China involves competitive ladder climbing in the party. The party is made of some 80 million members that break into 2,220 representatives of the National Congress, 371 of the Central Committee, 25 of the Politburo and nine of the Politburo Standing Committee, and eventually the general secretary.

The Politburo Standing Committee and its nine members, including the general secretary, command collective leadership over China. The general secretary is ranked first among equals. All state affairs are governed through a collective power system.

China’s unique power system has been established for a long time. The Politburo was first organized in 1927 and expanded to a powerful organ headed by Mao Zedong in 1935. Mao and his successor Deng Xiaoping were called new emperors as China has long been accustomed to serving a single ruler over thousands of years.

Only death can end the power of an emperor. In order to prevent the fallacy of a power monopoly by a single leader as in the case of the Cultural Revolution under Mao, Deng strengthened the role of the Politburo. He hoped his economic reforms would succeed after his death and such legacy and continuity in policy would only be possible through a stable policy system. A power coalition would coordinate and balance conflict of interests among different factions and minimize mishandling and risk in decision making.

The authority of the Politburo grew under Jiang Zemin. Under Hu Jintao, the members increased from seven to nine with more specific roles for each member. The peaceful power transition from Jiang to Hu added stability in China’s power succession legacy. Other despotic governments in Latin America and Africa benchmarked the Chinese leadership model in hopes to stabilize their politics.

But this so-called impeccable power system exposed fissures with the scandal involving Bo Xilai, who was a member of the ruling body until he was removed from the post as the party secretary of Chongqing last month. The Chinese government, usually highly secretive and protective of its leaders, flung the closet wide open and let out the skeletons. At the same time, it carried out a sweeping crackdown and corruption investigation in politics, military, business and media. Many suspect that the purge may not have been simply targeted at Bo, but to expunge the support and sympathizers to the popular politician.

The Jiang faction that patronized Bo is showing signs of displeasure at the challenge against its power. Zhou Yongkang, the ninth-ranked member of the Standing Committee and head of the Central Political and Legislative Committee, waived the vote against dismissing Bo from the Politburo.

China’s almighty collective ruling body is being challenged amid signs of implosion. The Beijing Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote that the general secretary has the leadership role in the party, but is not the top ruling power, in a warning to Hu Jintao not to abuse his power. In a protest in Guangdong, one banner demanded Hu to disclose his personal assets first. Even the 86-year-old Jiang is said to have left his home in Shanghai and staying in Beijing to realign his connection.

Deng once said if there is a problem in China, it would be due to political conflict. The time may have arrived. A rift in the collective ruling system can lead to political instability. Economic and financial instability in the world’s second-largest economy could deepen the global slump. We as its largest trading partner would also be affected.

The composition of Sixth-Generation leadership cadres could change due to the ousting of Bo. He had many acquaintances in Korea. As people change, so do policies. China’s policy changes influence the Korean Peninsula. We must closely watch the changes in Beijing and plan ahead.

* The writer is the director of the JoongAng Ilbo China Institute.

by You Sang-chul

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