Inside Politics: Party Power Struggles and Desperate Measures

"The Transition Period" (dir. Zhou Hao)

In an article for The Daily Beast, Rosemary Righter reports on the mysterious case of Wang Lijun, a high-ranking Chongqing cop seeking refuge at the US Consulate in Chengdu and how one man’s search for sanctuary has laid bare some of the CCP’s most essential power struggles. Uncovering the seeds of a Maoist doctrine vs. reform mentality battle playing out in the CCP, this story shows the demarcation—some lines clearer than others—between high-ranking ideological camps. In the case of Wang’s appeal to the Americans and the deep-seated ideological friction this desperate act may suggest, one thing is clear: this goes all the way to the top.

Writes Righter:

Wang was no ordinary target of Chinese persecution. As vice mayor and police chief of Chongqing, he had become China’s most celebrated cop, a folk hero for his no-holds-barred campaign against organized criminals and their alleged protectors in that sprawling megalopolis. He was the strong right arm of Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, one of China’s most powerful men. But on Feb. 2, Bo abruptly fired his ace enforcer – and Wang evidently had so little faith in Chinese justice that he took the desperate step of fleeing to the Americans for protection.

…China’s websites have gone wild with speculation over Wang’s flight. What did the fugitive police chief tell the Americans? What did they tell Beijing? What is he now telling the party’s enforcement arm, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection? The commission had already opened an investigation into party corruption in Chongqing. Above all, will he implicate – perhaps destroy – his former patron? Chongqing’s municipal government tried clumsily to discredit Wang by announcing that he was suffering from “mental stress” and was “receiving vacation-style treatment” – assertions that were met with derisive hilarity in the Chinese blogosphere and only reinforced the widespread assumption that Bo was trying to make Wang his fall guy.

This framing of Bo Xilai, the highly controversial Chongqing party secretary whose “much-trumpeted “Chongqing model” champions old-fashioned Marxist egalitarianism, classic socialist values, and strong party control over each individual’s life. His enthusiasm for sending city youth down to the countryside to “learn from the peasants” recalls the Cultural Revolution,” shows the throwback Mao-ist dogma towing a dangerous and powerful line in one faction of the CCP.

The drama has exposed a ferocious battle over China’s future at the commanding heights of the party. Until now the struggle has been kept under wraps, although most Chinese know how to interpret the party leaders’ telltale harping on “unity of the leadership” and “harmonious society.” Now, however, the battle for top party slots is out in the open, and all assumptions about its outcome have been upended. The infighting is assuming some of the intensity of the ideological disputes that preceded the Cultural Revolution. At stake is not only the balance of the party’s leadership, but also the country’s future direction – whether China will take a more statist and nationalist path or stay on the road to liberalization at home and abroad. In sum, this is the party’s most crucial moment since Deng Xiaoping set out to transform China after Mao’s death.

Apart from providing a fascinating window into often opaque party jockeying, this appeal to undermine or simply expose Bo Xilai’s seditious nature exhibits the often messy, tricky world of government officials, a topic also tackled in Zhou Hao‘s 2009 documentary The Transition Period. The film, which traces the rise and fall of a Henan CCP official, spans from his high-flying aspirations to the underhanded nitty-gritty of government life with astonishing detail and incredible closeness to the subject.

In the ongoing story of Wang Lijun and Bo Xilai, however, the final verdict on the controversy surrounding Bo may rest with the big man:

Vice President Xi [Jinping] has yet to declare his hand. So far he has straddled the factions, cannily refraining from specifics on policy. A year ago he publicly lavished praise on Bo for his revival of Red Culture, but that may not mean much. In China, you take care to praise your enemies in public; it’s from behind and in the dark that you stab them.

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