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Handling of Chongqing Incident Signifies a Milestone in Chinese Political Progress

Apr 25, 2012
  • Tong Zhiwei

    Professor, East China University of Political Science and Law
There has been significant international attention on the Chongqing incident and abundant news and information on the case. However from my recent exchanges with international media, I have found that most of them are perplexed if not misunderstood about Chinese reaction to the incident. 
The so-called “Chongqing incident” refers collectively to the following series of events – former Chongqing Vice-Mayor Wang Lijun visited the U.S. consulate in Chengdu and was subsequently relieved of his post; Bo-Gu Kailai was identified as a suspect in the murder of English businessman Neil Heywood and remains under police custody; former Politburo member and Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai was removed from his post for serious violations of discipline and remains under investigation by the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.  The core of the Chongqing incident is Bo Xilai’s serious violation of discipline – both Wang Lijun’s visit to the American consulate and Bo-Gu Kailai’s criminal case are closely interlinked with Bo Xilai’s position and power, and the result of his misuse of public resources. 
The Chongqing incident is not an incidental one. It is the result of the current organization system where local administrative power is overly concentrated in the hands of the party secretary. There are two reasons for this – 1. Although the local party secretary is technically on the same level as the local administrative head of government, in reality the party secretary is the superior officer. And with regards to relationships with law enforcement, the party secretary is the superior of the local Chief Justice and Chief Prosecutor. Even the local secretary for party Political and Legal affairs (who reports to the local party secretary) is the superior of the local Chief Justice and Chief Prosecutor. 2. With regards to the relationship between the central and local government, the central government rules by group consensus and has weaker control and oversight on provincial and local government. Also, top power players at the provincial and local level can make use of China’s two-tier legal system (where the court of second instance is the court of last instance) to effectively end all “sensitive” cases at the local level.
This organizational problem that gives the local party secretary excessive power, combined with Bo Xilai’s serious personal weaknesses and eccentricities, resulted in the “Bo Xilai-Chongqing style” of management. Bo Xilai cannot refute both his legal responsibility and joint responsibility for the Wang Lijun case as well as the criminal case involving his family members and associates. Bo’s actions have damaged China and the Communist party. 
The party’s decision to discipline Bo Xilai has garnered high support both within the communist party and within all levels of Chinese society. Within our circles of family, friends, neighbours, classmates, colleagues, teachers and students, as well as people whom we exchange ideas with in daily work and life, it is no secret whom each of us like, dislike, or support. In the wide circle of associates that I know and talk to, I have very rarely heard of anyone that does not support or disagrees with Bo Xilai’s dismissal and investigation. If they  do exist, they are definitely the minority. Indeed, I have come across micro blogs on the Internet that question whether the removal and investigation of Bo is just and fair, but this is normal as everyone has different opinions and they are each entitled to voice them. 
Some people have asked, if Wang Lijun had not exposed the story and evidence at the American consulate, will high-society individuals like Bo Xilai’s wife been prosecuted if they are allegedly involved in criminal cases? In my opinion it cannot be said that there are absolutely no cases where important people get off scot-free, however the same can be said of any country. In China, unless it remains undiscovered, once there are obvious indications or clues of criminal activity, especially those that attract the attention of central government leaders, legal action will definitely be taken. This has nothing to do with whether foreign organizations or personnel are aware of the case or not, for everyone is equal before the law. Bo-Gu Kailai was allegedly involved in murder and unquestionably needs to face the law, however she is also entitled to receive fair trial and treatment under the law. We are developing as a Rule of Law state, and the investigation, prosecution and trial of any case must be in accordance with the law. This includes an open trial in court as well as the defendant’s right to defence.
The international media sees the Chongqing incident as a power struggle – this is a serious misunderstanding. The tug between Chinese mainstream society and upper echelons like Bo Xilai relates to the lives and interests of the masses. There is indeed a struggle between the two, but this is not a power struggle. It is a struggle between moving forwards or backwards, about the struggle between the rule of law versus rule of any senior leader. It is about democratic versus authoritarian rule, and about a populist versus a caretaker state. The result of this struggle has an impact on the everyday lives of every individual and every family in China. Looking back on the last few years, it was evident to many that Bo Xilai and his followers went down a left wing backwards path not unlike the times of the Cultural Revolution. They advocated and promoted individual rule and autocracy, but used the populist ideology to achieve their goals. The difference between democracy and populism is that the former advocates equal rights and protection to every individual, while the latter often deviates from the rule of law and equal opportunity in order to fulfil the wishes of the majority, at the expense of the minority. 
There are several understandable reasons why the international media views the Chongqing incident as a power struggle and its aftermath. But ultimately the key reason is that they are far removed from the lives of ordinary Chinese people and often adopt a bystander viewpoint when analyzing Chinese politics. As such, their opinions often differ from those of the Chinese public. 
There is another point that international media often cannot comprehend – the situation in Chongqing has been abnormal for some time, so why not stop them sooner? There is always a process to how every situation develops. Chongqing is a municipality with a population of 30 million people. For the sake of development and stability, it is not possible to switch leadership the moment problems appear. Besides, the central government did not immediately change the local leadership because it wanted to give them the chance to self-correct. Much of the information that has been exposed indicated that the central government has already been supervising the matter and has given clear warnings with regards to the deviant state in Chongqing that was already obvious prior to the flare-up. At the very least, this fact is clear from Premier Wen Jiabao’s public statements.
Unquestionably, the Chongqing incident is a lesson that all in Chinese society should remember. In order to avoid a similar incident, China needs to push forth with reform all around, especially political reform. Organizational reforms need to address the following – introduce market characteristics to the allocation of political resources, including direct and competitive elections for NPC (National People’s Congress) deputies and all levels of political leadership; build an independent, authoritative, and credible judiciary; build an effective anti-corruption system; effectively reduce the rich-poor gap, and achieve a system where every citizen is afforded equal social protection.
China’s all-round reform, especially its political one, has long suffered from interference and obstruction from the extreme left. Dealing with Bo Xilai’s serious disciplinary violation and the related Chongqing cases with a strong rule of law will help remove obstacles posed by the extreme left in China’s road to reform, thereby initiating political reform including change to the judicial system. I believe that the central government’s adoption of a strict legal protocol in the entire incident signifies a milestone in China’s political development and progress towards democratic rule of law.
Tong Zhiwei is a professor of law from East China University of Political Science and Law.
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