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Scandals in dictatorships perform several valuable functions. They often discredit their rulers and undermine their legitimacy. In some cases, scandals may even hasten the disintegration of authoritarian regimes by causing infighting among ruling elites or triggering loss of confidence and a crisis. For academics, such scandals frequently provide test cases for validating long-held theories or assumptions about the durability of authoritarian rule.
From this perspective, the recent mega-scandal involving Bo Xilai, one of China's political stars, is particularly useful for assessing an influential theory about post-Mao China: resilient autocracy.
Until his stunning fall from power last month, Bo, the Communist Party chief of Chongqing municipality (population 30 million), was a leading candidate to be one of the members of the party's Politburo Standing Committee, China's most powerful decision-making body, when the party selects its new leaders this fall. Unfortunately for Bo, things went terribly wrong. His police chief, who had been faithfully doing his bidding in implementing a much-publicised campaign against organised crime in the city (during which, it has now been revealed, innocent businessmen were arrested, tortured, and imprisoned so that their assets could be appropriated by Bo and his henchmen), suddenly fell out with Bo and, fearing for his life, sought refuge in the American consulate in nearby Chengdu in early February. This very public act of laundering Chongqing's dirty linen forced Beijing to sack Bo five weeks later. The harm done to the party is incalculable.
The theory of "authoritarian resilience" was formulated by leading China watchers about a decade ago to describe the apparent success of the Communist Party in managing succession politics, maintaining a meritocratic regime, and responding to public demands for better governance. For nearly a decade, this theory became the explanation of choice for those who tried to find the underlying sources of strength for a regime commonly viewed as corrupt, illegitimate, and ham-fisted.
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