Bo Xilai focuses multiparty vision By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - Are these buds of multiparty democracy in China? Is it democracy with Chinese characteristics or just intra-party democracy? It's a new shape to the old power struggle for sure - but what is it really? It is certainly a new action in ossified Chinese politics, and a development that's taking place on the eve of a historical party congress, one where, for the first time, there is no one single elderly leader to choose his successors.
In fact, what Bo Xilai, the 61-year-old party secretary of Chongqing, a sprawling city of 30 million people, is doing is changing the rules of the political game in China. As soon as he went to the city in 2008, he broke the traditional succession truce with his predecessor, Wang Yang, and launched an unprecedented anti-mafia campaign. It was something that Beijing
people saw as an insult to Wang, a fellow Politburo member who was moved to head the Guangdong party. Why had Wang tolerated the mafia when Bo would not? Was it really the mafia, or was it something else?
Later, Bo brushed up on Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) songs and dances to inspire the common people with renewed idealistic ardor, obscuring the fact that during that period he had been imprisoned just because his father, Bo Yibo, was branded a ''black element".
It was a line he started on its own and that actually perplexed Beijing leaders, uncertain about what to think of this local campaign: whether to approve it and allow it to spread nationwide, or censor it and thus expose the rift in the party's allegedly unified propaganda policy. In either case, Bo had set the agenda, and Beijing was on the defensive. Thus Beijing astutely decided to simply ignore it.
This did not extinguish Bo's fire.
More importantly, Bo started to enlist intellectuals to work on his Chongqing project. There was nothing wrong with this - but nothing too right either. In fact, aren't virtually all Chinese intellectuals on the payroll of the one Chinese Communist Party? Yet, some intellectuals became especially affiliated with Chongqing and Bo's project. Why should their particular affiliation with Chongqing matter?
If it matters, then we are seeing the birth of conflicting interests in China: Bo against the others. But who are the others? Some conflicting interests in China are out in the open: rival companies competing for market share or provinces competing for resources and attention from abroad and Beijing.
But this is no longer a classic power struggle; it is something new. There are opposing lines with opposing think-tanks. Translated into Western words - just as the Chinese jargon ''market economy'' is known as ''capitalism'' in the rest of the world - there are parties within the party. It may be a matter of time before this becomes formalized. Crushing it seems very difficult, although it might not be impossible.
What we see with Bo is no petty experiment of a village election involving a few hundred voters; it is a top Chinese leader campaigning for a top government position in the 2012 congress. After he sets the example, others could follow it and campaign in the same manner. Formalization of the opposing lines or of those campaigns could be just a matter of time.
Parties in the West are not abstract ideas. They were born out of the stratification of interest groups that then coalesced in a political formation. This political entity ''party'' comes from the word ''part",' meaning this is a part of the whole national interest that finds it convenient to express itself through a formal instrument. The formation of parties in a political context responds to a practical idea. In a market economy, there are competing interests. If the rules of competition are not clear, there is a lot of room for dirty tricks that pollute social life and also economic life as market competition loses its fairness and thus its effectiveness. This is something in turn affecting overall economic performance.
One can already see the beginning of this loss of market fairness in China as large, mighty, state-owned enterprises squeeze more effective yet less powerful private companies at the fringes of the market and as richer eastern provinces block the light from backwards western provinces.
Bo then is just naturally responding to this: he wants more of the limelight for Chongqing, for his projects, and thus for himself. The issue is, will this type of campaign be formalized in the future? If it is not, it can become very messy, full of backstabbing plots, conspiracies or suspicions of conspiracies, and something that can be potentially paralyzing for China's already cumbersome political life.
If it is formalized, in one way or another, it is a green light on the route to multiparty democracy in China, something that, incidentally, also surfaced during the Cultural Revolution, as many future Chinese leaders of Bo's generation will remember - they were former Red Guards.
Yet, the song said it: ''the future is not ours to see". Bo's bold move may be also forgotten, and these sprouts may be uprooted. Then China will have a bigger problem with state enterprises battling with each other and with weaker companies without rules or clear political umbrellas. It is an unsettling future of chaos - something that Chinese leaders usually disdain. Therefore the die of political reform seems cast. It is not clear how it will roll, if it will give us a 1 or a 6, but it is already a whole new political game in China. Then, que sera sera.
Francesco Sisci is the Asia Editor of La Stampa. His e-mail is email@example.com