The role of family feuds in China
Nov 08 2012
Ten years ago, China had its first orderly transition since the establishment of the People’s Republic on October 1, 1949. This transition had largely been prepared by the architect of China’s social and economic modernisation, Deng Xiaoping. Today, there is no supreme authority and therefore, the run-up to the national party convention that meets on November 8 has seen some major disturbances. One of the most glamorous new leaders, Bo Xilai, a former trade minister and party leader of Chongqing, is in prison awaiting trial instead of running for one of the seats in the Standing Committee of the Politbureau, the highest body in the country. Usually, high party officials who lost out in internal struggles became non-persons and nobody took any interest in their fate. In the case of Bo Xilai, the son of one of the eight immortals of the Communist Party, this has been very different. Bo Xilai seems to have quite some support across the country and in the party. Therefore, his sudden removal from the innermost corridors of power has created quite a stir.
Of course, most people in this gigantic country do not follow the intricacies of national politics. However, in the case of Bo Xilai, there seems to be a genuine following out in the country, which must worry the leadership of the Communist Party. Recently, reports had been leaked to western media about huge private wealth of leading communists. First, there were suspicions that the family of the new party leader, Xi Jinping, had amassed wealth in the range of almost $300 million. Only a few days ago, the New York Times published an article that claimed that the clan of prime minister Wen Jiabao had accumulated over $2 billion. Wen himself was not implicated in this but his family was very much in the thick of things. As soon as these incriminating details were published, there were speculations as to who could be behind these revelations.
The finger of suspicion points to sources in the People’s Republic, namely to people who have been angered by the demotion of Bo Xilai. It is no secret that prime minister Wen Jiabao had been among those pressing for the removal of Bo Xilai. Wen had been worried by the populism and the charisma of Bo, which pointed to a renewed danger of Maoism bringing irrationalism and unpredictability into Chinese politics. Wen explicitly stated that China cannot afford another “cultural revolution”. However, there are, according to experts in China, other motives at play. We were told that the father of Bo Xilai had treated badly the father of prime minister Wen Jiabao. There was, therefore, a score to be settled.
For some time in the run-up to the Party Convention, it looked as if Wen had the upper hand. However, most recently things have started to change. In a highly unusual move, the Party has decided to press for an investigation into the wealth of the Wen clan. This makes it likely that relatives of the current prime minister will have to face criminal procedures. As Wen will have to relinquish power in spring, when the National Congress, China’s legislative body, will appoint the new head of government, he will become more vulnerable. That his position seems already to be eroding bodes ill for his future. After all, one of the most important issues in the leadership transition in a dictatorship is to make sure that after relinquishing power, one can enjoy a peaceful retirement.
It is highly unlikely that Bo Xilai can stage a return to power. But it seems likely that in the new Chinese leadership, there will be a new balance of power with conservatives gaining more power over the protégés of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. There will be scores that have to be settled and family feuds may play a role in this. More than ever the so-called “princelings”, the sons of former party leaders, will try to influence national politics. In this they are in competition with the retiring party leader Hu Jintao who has been an exponent of meritocracy and the part school. The new Secretary General, Xi Jinping, is a princeling and it has to be seen whether he will reach out to those who are against this new “red aristocracy”.
(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)