A Split in China’s Leadership?

China watchers have been digesting the news from last week that Bo Xilai, long considered one of the Communist party’s future stars, was dismissed from his post as party boss of Chonqing, colloquially known as “China’s Chicago,” a sprawling city of nearly 30 million in the southwest of the country. Bo had become symbolic of an old-fashioned, hard-line approach to administration and reform, openly spouting Mao-era songs and slogans. Some in the Western media labeled him a populist, but publicly, this manifested itself in attempts to rally support for tighter government control. The proximate reason for Bo’s dismissal was the apparent attempt by one of his close allies, the vice mayor of Chongqing, to seek asylum in the United States; when this attempt was rebuffed by an American consulate to which he had fled, the official, Wang Lijun, was arrested by Chinese police. In the wake of this incident, China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, began indirectly criticizing Xilai, and from then, the writing was on the wall. This may seem like a bit of inside baseball to those who aren’t steeped in Chinese politics, but the episode is significant, and a rare opportunity to peer behind the veil of the Communist party’s internal workings. 

The dismissal of such a senior and well-connected official would be news enough in a regular year. As a son of one of the founders of the People’s Republic, Bo was a charter member of the group known as the “princelings,” whose rise to the heights of power seemed preordained. But this is the year of China’s leadership transition, and Bo, a former Minister of Commerce, was widely expected to be elevated to the Communist party’s Standing Committee — which essentially runs China — later this year. Bo’s fellow princeling Xi Jinping is also in the final months of his assumed ascension to leadership of the Communist party and presidency of China. The spotlight was on Xi earlier this year when he traveled to Washington, D.C., for his inaugural meeting with the Obama administration. As the leadership transition draws near, analysts and pundits have been looking for signs of dissension within the ruling circle, partly as a way to assess the resilience of a regime that is soon to give the reins of power to its fifth generation.

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