In China, the once unthinkable has become thinkable.
Diplomats and China watchers typically presume that citizens of the world’s economic landlord are resigned to perpetual life under a democratically barren political culture characterized by deceit and corruption. But in an age when most of the world’s population interacts with increasing impunity on the Internet, regimes struggle to gag mass communication and public attitudes through traditional censorship.
In China, recent developments have triggered another storm of online discussion and informed popular opinion in ways that are causing great anxiety to the Communist Party leadership.
Late on the evening of April 10, China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency issued a brief statement announcing the arrest of Gu Kailai for the murder by poisoning of Neil Heywood last fall in the city of Chongqing. Ms. Gu is the spouse of Bo Xilai, China’s former minister of commerce, erstwhile secretary of the party committee of the municipality of Chongqing and – until that same day, when he was formally relieved of all his posts – a high-profile member of the elite Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party.
The Xinhua statement said there was a dispute over “economic interests” between Ms. Gu and Mr. Heywood. What mutual economic interests the spouse of a minister of commerce had with a foreign national who worked for a consulting firm, Hakluyt & Company, is not specified. But Hakluyt was founded by retired officers from Britain’s MI-6 spy agency, so this plot could thicken.
Ever since Xinhua’s terse announcement, the Chinese blogosphere has roiled with lurid speculation on hundreds of millions of dollars that Ms. Gu is alleged to have transferred to offshore investments.
Communist Party leaders have attempted to ban all online discussion that has anything to do with Bo Xilai, but the Whac-A-Mole tactics of China’s prodigious army of Internet censors can hardly keep up with the massive tide of bloggers and posters.
Many in the general public see this as the latest example of Chinese officials, ancient and modern, enriching themselves by selling official positions under their purview, in order to generate bribes through corrupt business dealings, especially in the construction sector. There is also big money to be made in kickbacks for brokering business deals that require government licences and permissions.
Foreigners are needed as middlemen, to introduce foreign capital to political power and also to help get the bribes into foreign accounts outside China.
To date there is no evidence that Ms. Gu or Mr. Heywood were involved in anything illegal. Mr. Bo and his family did enjoy an ostentatious lifestyle that well exceeded the $26,000 he earned as a senior civil servant, but then one is hard-pressed to find any Chinese Communist official whose lifestyle is consistent with his nominal salary. Exactly where their extra money comes from is not clear, but people in China prefer to deal in cash.
But many bloggers contend that Ms. Gu is innocent of the charges against her, and like so many talented and powerful women in Chinese history, she is a sacrificial lamb to the factional power posturing of venal men. Given the closed nature of China’s judicial process, we cannot entirely rule out that possibility.
Chinese citizens know that the overarching motif of party corruption runs deeper than political factionalism, and that Communist Party elite families are mostly cut from the same cloth as Mr. Bo’s family. These latest revelations are likely to make Chinese people realize all the more that their current political system is too rotten to be abided any further.
Some foreign commentators suggest this scandal will fade away in the months ahead, and poses no threat to the continued authoritarian rule of China’s Communist Party. But such analysis ignores the increasing consensus among people in China that the best way forward for the country’s political future is multiparty democracy, supported by a vibrant free press and the rule of law by an incorrupt independent judiciary. Evidently many in the Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army also think this way, so one would be naive to dismiss Chinese democracy as a realistic possibility today.
Indeed, China has been consistently underestimated by the West. For instance, its enormous contribution to civilization through philosophy and literary arts is hardly taught in Canadian schools. I must confess that, as a student in Shanghai in the 1970s, in the wake of the devastating Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, when my Chinese friends emphatically insisted that China would rise again to be a great world power in coming decades, I with some regret consigned their enthusiastic vision to wishful thinking at best, delusion at worst.
As events have proved beyond doubt, I was the deluded one.
These days, China watchers like to consign Chinese citizens to a life under politically repressive authoritarian elite rule into the foreseeable future. But I think they are wrong again. Having come to know the exemplary qualities of Chinese people over the 40 years since I got it so wrong on China’s economic rise, I am convinced that in the not-so-distant future we will see a good and just democratic society in China, and a Chinese nation that will play fair in global affairs. This is just right for China, Canada and the world.
And it is increasingly evident that this day will come.
R.I.P. Mr. Heywood.
Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University in St. Catharines, and is a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.