Reformers within the Chinese Communist party are trying to exploit the recent ousting of Bo Xilai by making constitutional and political changes, say senior officials and people close to party leaders.
While any reforms could be tentative at first, Wen Jiabao, the premier, and his allies hope to build support in the run-up to the 18th party congress this year, at which most of the country’s senior leaders will step down and the party will consider revising its constitution. Many of Mr Bo’s former allies argued strongly against reform.
“The conditions for political and constitutional reform are almost all in place – now is the right time,” one senior central government official said. “Wen will push very hard for this and will keep pushing even after his retirement [early next year].”
The suspension of Mr Bo, the former Chongqing party chief and politburo member, from his official posts and the arrest of his wife in connection with the suspected murder of British businessman Neil Heywood has prompted a crisis of legitimacy for the ruling party and exposed deep rifts among the leadership. But it has also strengthened the hand of Mr Wen, who was previously seen as weak and ineffectual in his attempts to promote democratic reforms.
“Bo Xilai’s case is a tipping point for the debate over constitutionalism in China. It would be naive to say this will be accomplished in months or even years but this looks like the moment when they will push it,” said Cheng Li, an expert in Chinese elite politics at the Brookings Institution think-tank.
“Wen and his reformers have won a battle – but the war is not over yet. If the party wants to save itself it must surrender some of its power and place itself under the constitution.”
One well-placed party member working in the legal and judicial sector argued that Mr Bo’s downfall represented a turning point as a consensus builds, even among hardliners, that the party needs to put its affairs under the purview of the law.
“The fundamental problem is that there are no real rules in this country. The party makes the laws but then says it and its members are not subject to them,” the party member said. “This is unsustainable.”
Despite three decades of rapid and successful economic reform, China’s secretive political structure remains strikingly similar to the Leninist framework imported from the Soviet Union after the Communist party came to power in 1949.
Before Mr Bo’s demise, amid allegations of murder and insubordination, most analysts had assumed that the party had basically achieved its goal of institutionalising its succession planning.
But his downfall raised doubts that the party will be able to manage another peaceful and stable transition of power. This has happened only once, in 2002, when Jiang Zemin made way for Hu Jintao as president.
"The party makes the laws but then says it is not subject to them. This is unsustainable"
Unlike many countries, where politicians tend to enter a “lame duck” period towards the end of their terms, Chinese politicians are arguably at their strongest in the final months before they step down. That is the period when political jockeying among incoming contenders is fiercest, and departing leaders are best placed to pick their successors and implement policies that cannot be easily reversed after they step down.
People familiar with the present struggle say Mr Bo’s downfall has undermined his former allies who also argued loudest against western-style democratic reform and an independent judiciary. These included Zhou Yongkang, China’s security tsar, Wu Bangguo, chairman of the national people’s congress, pLi Changchun, the party propaganda chief and Mr Jiang, who still wields considerable power from behind the scenes.
Apart from Mr Jiang, all three are members of the elite nine-member politburo standing committee that, in effect, rules the country. Seven of the current nine members are scheduled to step down at the 18th party congress.
One person with close family ties to this conservative faction said there was much disagreement and personal animosity between these leaders and Mr Wen – but also a recognition that something needed to be done to institutionalise power structures, which could lead to limited constitutional and political reforms.
“We need rules and institutions that define the limits of the game so that even when individuals leave the stage the entire structure continues to function,” this person said.
People familiar with Mr Wen’s thinking said he had become increasingly convinced that democratic reforms were needed to maintain social, economic and political stability. While the premier has said as much in numerous speeches to mostly western audiences, his definition of “democracy” has always appeared ambiguous and his ability to push through serious reforms limited.
These people say his goals include the gradual expansion of village elections to the national level and making the judiciary independent of the party.
“It’s true there is a lot of competition between officials on their way up the ranks but until we have elections in this country we cannot be sure that the most capable person is in place at the top,” one senior official aligned with Mr Wen said.
“Why can’t we learn from western democratic systems? After all, Marx was a westerner and Communism comes from the west.”
Susan Shirk, a former US state department official in the Clinton administration and expert on Chinese politics, said the Bo scandal could prompt the party to hold a limited vote among select officials on who should be promoted into its elite echelons at this autumn’s congress.
“If there are differences on how to manage the Bo affair and how to manage the selection of top leaders, they may decide that this is the time to introduce intraparty democracy and allow the central committee to decide who should be promoted into the standing committee of the politburo,” Ms Shirk said.
However, some liberal reform advocates remain sceptical that Mr Wen will be able to introduce political and constitutional reforms of any substance or that they will go far enough to restore the party’s legitimacy after the Bo scandal.
“I don’t think we’re talking about the reforms carried out by the Soviet Union in 1990-91,” said He Weifang, a professor at Peking University faculty of law and an outspoken advocate of western-style democracy. “If political reform is not resolutely pursued then the problems of corruption and social instability will threaten the Communist party’s grip on power.”