AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
BEIJING: A sensational political scandal unfolding in China has exposed the high level of impunity enjoyed by elites at a time when social tensions are rising, highlighting the need for change, observers say.
The affair, which toppled Bo Xilai, one of the Communist Party’s stars, and prompted authorities to probe his wife for murder, has played out in an unusually public manner despite the best efforts of China’s censors.
There have been scant official announcements about the case, but allegations of massive corruption and abuse of power involving Bo and his family have trickled through online to Chinese people already weary of graft scandals.
“The Bo Xilai case clearly shows that corruption among some of the most powerful leaders can be horrendous,” said Sidney Rittenberg, an American who spent decades in China and gained first-hand insight into the party’s workings.
“Today, officials who genuinely want to fight corruption, including some at the very top, are often in a minority and lack the power to clean out those Augean Stables,” he said, referring to the daunting task of Greek mythology.
“Along with the necessary economic decentralisation and the end of a centralised command economy, local officials are able to pretty much rule the roost in the areas under their command.”
Bo was sacked from his post as boss of the southwestern city of Chongqing last month, and subsequently suspended from the party’s top-level, 25-member Politburo for “serious discipline violations” –– code in China for graft.
His wife Gu Kailai, meanwhile, has been placed under investigation for the suspected murder of a British businessman –– a scandal that came to light when Bo’s right-hand man fled to a US consulate and reportedly asked for asylum.
The saga reads like a Hollywood thriller and has gripped ordinary Chinese people, some of whom thought the charismatic Bo was a refreshing change from the country’s stiff, technocratic leaders.
The Bo case has been described as the biggest political crisis to hit China in decades as it exposes deep-set power struggles within the party, although other high-profile corruption cases have also emerged over the past years.
Much of the party’s legitimacy in recent years has rested on China’s breakneck economic growth, which is able to pull people out of poverty, but this is slowing and the growth model is becoming unsustainable. Social tensions are on the rise, with land grabs one of the most volatile issues, triggering violent protests.
Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese elite politics and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the party needs to make “profound transformations” if it wants to “regain the public’s confidence and remain in power.”
He said in an interview with the US-based National Bureau of Asian Research published on Wednesday that there should be a call for widespread legal reforms, intra-party elections for leadership positions and media openness.