Economic churning spurs Chinese
By Sreeram Chaulia
In contrast to the phenomenal expansion of China's global
influence over the past decade, its domestic vulnerability
was embarrassingly exposed last week.
Rumor mills on China's active blogosphere were rife with
claims that a military coup had occurred in Beijing, with
gunfire, tanks and soldiers on the streets. Though these
accounts were apocryphal, there is seldom smoke without a
The dragon's corroding innards as a result of the spillover
of feckless economic modernization were laid bare,
notwithstanding the heavy lid of censorship. In the fog of
details relating to the supposed cloak-and-dagger operation
that has shocked China, one must not lose sight of the root
economic causes of the political scandals.
The imaginary coup was alleged to have been carried out by
the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to protest the fall of
one of their favorites in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)
- Bo Xilai, a flamboyant Robin Hood-style politician who had
a controversial record as secretary of the party in the
southern city of Chongqing.
Bo was fired from this position this month after one of his
aides mysteriously entered a US consulate, seeking asylum.
It triggered a political tsunami within the CCP and cut
short Bo's career - he had been tipped to take a seat on the
nine-member Politburo Standing Committee in October.
The coup canard-mongers contended that the PLA had decided
to intervene on behalf of Bo and his neo-Maoist comrades
against the "Shanghai leadership faction", which had been
steering China's economic reform juggernaut after the demise
of Deng Xiaoping in the early 1990s.
While the PLA is not entirely pro-Maoist, there are senior
figures within the Chinese military who share Bo's ideology
of rejecting "capitalist roaders" and reversing the party's
adoption of partial free market strategies.
Bo's reputation in Chongqing was forged in a merciless
"strike hard" campaign against corporate malpractices and
white collar crimes that are on the rise across China in the
wake of dozens of new billionaires being minted every year.
Bo's appeals to Mao Zedong-era uprooting of anti-communist
tendencies, and his personal rapport with the working poor
who are chafing against record levels of economic
inequality, challenged the bases on which China had become a
superpower by capitalizing on globalization and its
iniquitous processes. The heavy human costs of an economic
revolution are bound to manifest themselves in political
intrigue and festering dissent.
The post-Deng central leadership of the CCP, which discarded
personality cults and ruled through collective consensus of
technocrats wedded to economic liberalization, was wary of
Bo's rising clout for a while. But since he had wlde popular
approval in Chongqing and nationally, it was believed that
Bo would be incorporated into the elite Standing Committee
of the Politburo in Beijing, when President Hu Jintao's team
bows out and a new dispensation comes in under presumptive
president Xi Jinping.
Since Mao's death in 1976, the staunchly anti-capitalist
left has been given representation at the pinnacle in
Beijing as a balancing factor against excessive "pragmatism"
that could sell away communism lock, stock and barrel.
Now, however, Bo's ouster has scuppered the smooth
leadership transition predicted for the 18th Party Congress
this autumn and has set the cat among the pigeons as to
which direction Chinese public policies will take, with a
historic intra-party fault line being widened.
Can the neo-Maoist factions of the party and the military
revolt openly and plunge China into a political melee? The
PLA has issued a clarification after the Bo episode that it
remains firmly devoted to the party's civilian leadership
and will continue to implement the party-state's diktats.
Yet, there is an underlying economic strain that is
intensifying inside China and which could upend the
domination of the pro-market moderate factions in the party.
Chinese netizens who went berserk with the coup scuttlebutt
represent public opinion that is frustrated at the sharp
disparities in wealth that are climbing apace with economic
growth. The number of "mass incidents" of protests against
land grabbing and corruption by CCP "cadre capitalists" has
been increasing drastically, testifying to the social
churning unleashed by speedy modernization. When the system
fails to deliver fairness, personalities like Bo crop up as
unconventional solutions to roll back injustices.
The recent resistance of peasants against land-usurping CCP
bureaucrats in the village of Wukan (Guangdong province) is
a sign of sharp escalations to come within China's political
economy. The pro-Maoist elements of the party and the
military correctly sense that the majority of Chinese people
are disenchanted with the current path of "rightist"
What happens in a society where the bulk of the people are
seething against the establishment for depriving them of
political freedoms and for anointing greedy oligarchs?
Marginalization of neo-Maoist radicals in the Chinese polity
will risk thousands of Wukans breaking out or dozens of
insiders-turned-saviours like Bo reviving Maoist red terror.
Either way, China's future path is going to be less
monolithic and linear, as more factional tussles are likely
to play out in the Xi Jinping era.
Outgoing Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao frankly sounded
the alarm this month: "New problems that have cropped up in
Chinese society will not be fundamentally resolved and such
a historical tragedy as the Cultural Revolution may happen
It was an oblique acknowledgement that the Bo example
manifests deeper structural flaws in the Chinese model of
"market socialism". Some level of entropy was always present
since the economic reforms commenced in 1978, but the
aspirational revolution of Chinese working and middle
classes will seek more responsive shifts within the party
hierarchy (before seeking the oft-predicted full-fledged
democratization of China).
A return to Maoist revolutionary fervor in China would,
however, scare the world because the violence at home under
the "great helmsman" was exported in the form of various
wars that China waged abroad.
The same neo-Maoist officers in the PLA who are aggrieved at
the treatment meted out to a populist politician like Bo
also prefer a more muscular Chinese foreign policy around
the globe. Neo-Maoists in the party and the military are
less willing to continue the path of economic
interdependence between China and the United States. For
them, the Cold War never ended and the eternal battle
between capitalism and communism goes on.
So, ironically, the need felt by China's masses for
restoring some of the egalitarian policies and ideas of the
Maoist era is a recipe for disaster in the international
arena. The hyper-nationalism that China has nurtured under
moderate communists like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao would
pale as anodyne rhetoric should hardline neo-Maoists gain
We cannot conclude from the rare dirty linen being washed in
public by the CCP that its hold on power is imploding.
Rather, it is eroding gradually under the burdens of
sharpening class distinctions and inequalities, which are
reflected in renewed tussles between moderate and neo-Maoist
A spell of slower economic growth, where billionaires with
dubious government connections stop emerging for a while,
may help restore some of the social stability that the party
desperately needs to extend its rule. Sacrificing the drive
for international greatness via relentless economic growth
could be the price for China to calm its stormy domestic
Sreeram Chaulia is
a Professor and Vice Dean of the Jindal School of
International Affairs in Sonipat, India, and the first B
Raman Fellow for Geopolitical Analysis at the strategic
affairs think-tank, The Takshashila Institution. He is the
author of the recent book, International
Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and
Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones (IB
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