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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.
There are many problems with this theory. The most serious one is that it is based on flimsy evidence and ex-post rationalisation, the sin of sins in academic theory-building. To put it simply, advocates of this theory believe that if things have gone right for the party for so long, it must have inner strengths analysts have overlooked.
Now that the Bo scandal has shed some light on the inner workings of the party, it is clear that the purported resilience of autocracy in China is nothing but a myth.
The centrepiece of this theory is that the party has finally got its succession politics right. The evidence for making this assertion is that the transfer of power from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin and from Jiang to Hu Jintao has been without incident. While this is ostensibly true, what has been neglected is that China's authoritarian rule today is based on collective leadership, not personal dictatorship. So picking the nominal top leader, the party's general secretary, is only part of the succession process. Real action happens in selecting the rest of the leadership team — the other members of the Politburo Standing Committee. It is here that the party has encountered nasty infighting and surprises. The procedure of determining who should be in this select group has remained opaque and unpredictable. In all likelihood, the fall of Bo was not really triggered by his attempt to cover up his wife's alleged involvement in the murder of a British businessman, but by the power struggle revolving around the selection of the candidates for the Politburo Standing Committee. Such a struggle is definitely a zero-sum game: if Bo got a seat, it would be at the expense of another ambitious party apparatchiki, and vice versa. Worse still, what Bo has done in Chongqing — shameless self-promotion, cynical but effective manipulation of public opinion, and ruthless use of the police and illegal methods — must have scared the daylight out of his rivals. Allowing such a character to ascend to the top of the party would be a nightmare for many. Bo had to be stopped. How his rivals managed to pull this off will be the plot for a gripping political thriller. For the moment, all we need to know is that viciousness, patronage and unpredictability mark the succession process of the party today, not meritocracy or established norms imagined by scholars eager to show that China's autocratic ruling elites have found a magic formula to perpetuate their hold on power without popular legitimacy.
In the larger scheme of things, the debunking of an academic theory is perhaps the least significant fallout of the Bo scandal. The most serious and immediate concern on many people's minds is whether the party can survive the deep rift opened by its handling of the Bo affair. Without doubt, this incident is the most damaging political crisis for the party since Tiananmen in 1989. The disgrace of Bo has cheered his enemies, who dislike his personality and fear his unscrupulousness intensely. But Bo's patrons and supporters must feel extremely bitter because they have lost a surrogate who, once installed into the Politburo Standing Committee, could have been counted on to look after their interests and security.
For the moment, the party appears to have survived the crisis and is expected to put the nearly derailed succession process back on track. But the lasting damage to its authority, legitimacy, and internal unity has already been done and is irreparable. If anything, the Bo scandal shows that, far from resilient, the party's rule is exceedingly fragile.
The writer is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in the US, email@example.com
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