In the wake of the Beidaihe leadership conference, Chinese leaders almost certainly expected to return to their posts, pending the 18th Party Congress this fall, having resolved the shape of the new leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Only it doesn’t seem to be quite working out that way.
The ongoing scandal involving former Chongqing Party secretary Bo Xilai continues to produce new developments and revelations. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, has been tried for the murder of a British businessman, leading to a suspended death sentence. His former top police officer, Wang Lijun, whose reported defection to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu precipitated much of this scandal, has now also been publicly charged with, among other things, defection and taking bribes.
For the CCP to admit that a top leader’s wife and chief lieutenant are guilty of such serious crimes is a major action, since it runs the risk that the Chinese citizenry might start to wonder whether other Chinese leaders might also be guilty of corruption and other crimes.
Meanwhile, Bo himself has yet to be formally charged with any crimes. His case, if it comes to public trial, is likely to lead to additional revelations that could be even more disruptive to the CCP’s reputation, as well as to the political transition.
Now, Ling Jihua, formerly head of the Central Committee’s General Office, which provides staff support to the Party General Secretary (Hu Jintao) has stepped down, to take over the United Front Work Department. Such a move is not necessarily indicative of anything, since Hu himself will soon be replaced by Xi Jinping. Moreover, Ling had replaced Wang Gang almost exactly five years ago on the eve of the 17th Party Congress.
In this case, however, Ling’s son happened to die in a speeding Ferrari over the weekend. This death, while under-reported in China (which has imposed a media blackout on the subject), highlights again that the children of many senior Party officials are living a life far beyond the means of average Chinese workers—or even the official salaries of senior Party officials.
Amidst all this, there are repeated rumors that the CCP is thinking of reducing the size of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the core group of senior CCP leaders who actually run China, from nine to seven. Such a move, it is believed, is necessitated by the fall of Bo, which in effect created a potential “open seat.” With uncertainty as to who would replace him, it is believed that consensus would be more easily achieved if the PSC were to shrink, in effect, removing that open seat from play.
However, such a move would also mean at least one currently held position would lose power—and there are reports that such a move might come at the expense of the Ministry of State Security and the party official responsible for it, Zhou Yongkang. Zhou is reported to be in trouble for not keeping better tabs on Bo Xilai, with Wang Lijun’s defection attempt underscoring that failure. This is not to suggest that the internal security portfolio would be removed from the PSC’s concerns but that Zhou, and associated personalities, could be in eclipse.
This leadership transition is already a difficult one, since it is the first to occur without the guiding hand of a revolutionary-era leader to provide guidance and authoritative credibility. With another six weeks to two months until the 18th Party Congress formally convenes, it is likely that China’s top leaders are wondering what new developments might be confronting them as they prepare the way for the first self-selected leadership.