It's not clear what has happened at China's highest level. But something happened, and disunity at the top is always cause for concern.
A Byzantine scandal betrays China's political instability
Perception of political stability in authoritarian regimes can shift quickly and without warning. As has been seen throughout history, long-entrenched autocracies have suddenly plunged into political turmoil or lost power. Not too long ago, China was seen as an exemplary modern one-party system, with a powerful communist party capable of maintaining stability and delivering sustained growth.
Unfortunately, this perception is now being replaced by something entirely different. An increasing number of people are worried about an economic hard landing in China; others are concerned about medium-term deterioration in economic growth due to population ageing, environmental degradation and excessive state control of the economy. In recent days, the spectacle of a power struggle within the Chinese elites, the surest recipe for unravelling a dictatorship, has seized the imagination.
It all began with an unusual press conference given by the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, towards the end of the annual session of the National People's Congress (China's parliament) in mid-March. Unlike his tight-lipped colleagues, Mr Wen openly talked about the need for political reform, a taboo subject since the crushing of the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
To be sure, Mr Wen had touched upon this issue on several previous occasions, and each time his words fuelled speculation about his real intentions. This time was no different. Strictly speaking, Mr Wen's reference to political reform broke no new ground. He carefully stuck to the official definition of "political reform", which centres on administrative improvement but not democratising change.
Nevertheless, as before, observers of Chinese politics wondered whether Mr Wen had a different agenda. There are two explanations. One is that Mr Wen wants to differentiate himself from his colleagues. By at least rhetorically advocating political reform, he may establish his record as a top leader who tried to nudge the country in a more open direction. Obviously, whether he was able to accomplish this difficult task is entirely a different question.
The other explanation is that Mr Wen was actually expressing a view shared by some of his colleagues, who are apparently alarmed by signs of stagnant economic reform, rising social tensions and regime fragility. Perhaps like Mr Wen, these colleagues believe that only by embracing political reform, which will help give the ruling party greater legitimacy in exchange for stricter accountability, can China maintain its stability and economic progress.
Mr Wen's remarks on political reform probably would have been quickly forgotten had there not been a political bombshell a day later. Barely had Mr Wen finished his press conference when the ruling Communist Party unceremoniously purged Bo Xilai, the party boss of Chongqing (a city of 30 million) and until recently a front-runner for a slot on the party's top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee. Since Mr Bo's downfall in mid-March, many theories, some of them heavily influenced by conspiratorial thinking, have been advanced to explain this dramatic, if not bizarre, turn of events.
Before his disgraced exit from power, Mr Bo was already a controversial figure who had demonstrated a remarkable capacity for self-promotion. After he became the party boss of Chongqing in 2007, he launched a high-profile campaign to "sing red" (organising mass performance of old revolutionary songs) and "smashing black" (cracking down on organised crime). In addition, he managed to find enough money to build inexpensive housing for ordinary citizens.
Brilliant marketing elevated Mr Bo's political profile as a decisive, capable and caring political leader. Until his police chief, who spearheaded his campaign against organised crime, tried to seek asylum in a US consulate in early February, Mr Bo seemed certain for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee.
Now that he has fallen, many people are trying to find out the truth. Sadly, given China's opaque political system, perhaps we will never know. It is likely, as the rumours have claimed, that Mr Bo's downfall was caused by his clumsy attempt to cover up a corruption scandal that involved his wife and the death of a British expatriate in China. In this version of the story, Mr Bo tried to stop his police chief from investigating his wife and the mysterious death of the Briton (a non-drinker whom Chinese police found dead from "excessive alcohol consumption"). Sensing danger to his life because of his refusal to go along with Mr Bo, the police chief went to the Americans for protection.
Based on the other version of the story, Mr Bo's ambition, skills and ruthlessness scared his rivals. In order to bring him down, they decided to go after his police chief, most likely a crooked cop. Indeed, they found evidence to implicate him and his boss, Mr Bo. The beleaguered police chief panicked and, without much thought, went to the US consulate, a move that so infuriated the top leaders in Beijing that they decided to sack Mr Bo right away.
Whatever the cause of Mr Bo's political demise, this episode illustrates the weakest link in China's one-party rule: disunity among leaders. In the party's 62 years in power, each leadership split has been followed by a catastrophe. In 1966, the division between the late dictator Mao Zedong and his colleagues led to the Cultural Revolution, a decade of chaos that nearly destroyed China. In 1989, the split between the conservatives and the liberals sparked the Tiananmen crisis, which came close to toppling the party's rule.
Today, signs of elite disunity are emerging. Clearly, Mr Wen's remarks were no idle talk, and Mr Bo's purge must have angered many of his supporters and followers within the party. One can identify four different groups within the party: the populists like Mr Bo, the reformers like Mr Wen, the moderates and the conservatives. For the moment, the moderates and the conservatives are in charge. But they are being challenged from the left and the right. Nobody knows precisely how such infighting will be resolved. One thing is sure, however: China has entered another period of political instability.
Dr Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California