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    Greater China
     Mar 29, 2012

Economic churning spurs Chinese 'coup'
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 fire. 

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" economic policies. 
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 again." 

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 control. 

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 cliques. 

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 waters. 

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 Tauris, London) 

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