Economic problems have appeared to sharpen political divisions, something evident in Beijing’s on-again, off-again censorship of Finance Minister Lou Jiwei’s admission last month that China would experience sub-target growth in the second half of this year. Permitting slower growth is considered crucial for reform, so the censorship has been taken as a bad sign. Xi Jinping’s reformist premier, Li Keqiang, wants to implement sweeping changes to get China moving again but has been stymied by the so-called Iron Quadrangle of entrenched interests, many of them Bo supporters.
As growth continues to erode, the divide between those wanting structural reform and others believing in state-directed solutions can only widen, as it appears to have done so in recent months. Worryingly, China’s internal squabbling looks like it is affecting the country’s external relations. Xi’s aggressive maneuvers to grab territory — especially from India, Japan, and the Philippines — are attempts to direct public discontent away from the faltering political system.
The settlement of Bo’s future does nothing to address that discontent, which manifests itself in the evident displeasure with the current rock-no-boat politics. Bo’s incarceration will also do nothing to end signs of defiance of authority, including increasingly noisy street protest. His sentencing could mean that Xi Jinping may have to move even further “left” to repair his relations with Bo’s extremist supporters. Already, China is in the midst of Xi’s Maoist and Marxist campaigns that highlight, once again, the anti-modern nature of Chinese communist politics.
Xi, who has no identifiable political faction of his own, will have to navigate among the Party’s partisans. If anything, that means he will not be able to undertake the bold initiatives expected when he became general secretary last November. There were also high hopes that his predecessor, Hu Jintao, would also sponsor liberalization when he came to power in 2002. His ten-year tenure is now called the “Lost Decade.”
Soon, Bo Xilai will be out of the way, and Xi’s real test will begin. Perhaps the controversial Bo has stood in Xi’s way, but it’s more likely that the one-party state has been the real impediment to positive change.