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In China, a Rare View of Infighting by Leaders

By MICHAEL WINES,NY Times: BEIJING — A deep vein of intrigue has always pulsed through the messy process of sorting out power in China’s Communist Party.

The former president, Jiang Zemin, supposedly strengthened his position in 1995 by engineering a 16-year prison term on corruption charges for the Politburo member and Beijing mayor Chen Xitong. Nearly four years ago, a prominent opponent of President Hu Jintao, Mayor Chen Liangyu of Shanghai, was sentenced to 18 years in prison on graft charges.

The leadership transition that will commence this autumn was supposed to put an end to that kind of political bloodshed. But the ouster on Thursday of Bo Xilai, the Communist Party secretary of Chongqing municipality who was openly campaigning for a spot in that elite leadership, threatens to puncture the veneer of comity at a crucial time, raising concerns of unsettling conflict within the Communist Party.

A combination picture shows China's Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang (L) attending an agreement signing in Athens in a June 15, 2010 file photo, and Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai attending a meeting of the annual session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in a March 6, 2010 file photo. Bo, the Communist Party boss of China's southwestern city of Chongqing, has been removed, state news agency Xinhua said on March 15, 2012, following a scandal involving a senior aide who took refuge in a U.S. diplomatic mission last month. Zhang will replace Bo, Xinhua said in a brief report, and will also keep his vice premier portfolio. REUTERS/John Kolesidis/Jason Lee/Files
A combination picture shows China's Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang (L) attending an agreement signing in Athens in a June 15, 2010 file photo, and Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai attending a meeting of the annual session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in a March 6, 2010 file photo. Bo, the Communist Party boss of China's southwestern city of Chongqing, has been removed, state news agency Xinhua said on March 15, 2012, following a scandal involving a senior aide who took refuge in a U.S. diplomatic mission last month. Zhang will replace Bo, Xinhua said in a brief report, and will also keep his vice premier portfolio. REUTERS/John Kolesidis/Jason Lee/Files

Charismatic and ruthless, Mr. Bo is the rare Chinese politician who has built a base of popular support, deploying sweeping government powers to redistribute wealth among his 30 million subjects. His formidable political influence includes a network of support inherited from his father, a hero of the 1949 revolution. His admirers include leftists who want a revival of absolute government control of society. Some of his many detractors call him a neo-Maoist demagogue.

Now that elite leadership, the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo, appears to have blunted Mr. Bo’s campaign to assume one of its seats. The surface explanation for his dismissal from the Chongqing party leadership is simple: Mr. Bo’s longtime deputy, Wang Lijun, Chongqing’s vice mayor and former police chief, scandalized the nation by taking refuge in an American consulate last month, apparently fearing imprisonment or worse. Mr. Bo paid the price for failing to stop him.

But outside experts say — and anecdotal evidence suggests — that old intrigues thought to have been suppressed are at work again. Indeed, some analysts say Mr. Bo’s dismissal could foreshadow the kind of infighting over the future not seen since the Tiananmen Square protests set China on a rigidly authoritarian course nearly 23 years ago.

“This is a critical political issue, perhaps the most critical since 1989,” Joseph Fewsmith, a scholar of China’s senior leaders at Boston University, said in an interview. Mr. Bo’s Chongqing policies, Professor Fewsmith said, could pose “a challenge to the direction of reform and opening up as it has been implemented since the Deng Xiaoping era.”

Mr. Deng, who was a Chongqing-area party secretary in the 1950s, set China on a basically capitalist course in the late 1970s, forging a government that controlled strategic economic sectors but allowed private businesses to flourish elsewhere.

In Chongqing, Mr. Bo pursued a broadly opposite course. He mounted a sweeping anticorruption campaign to dismantle private business empires and created vast government-run businesses to build civic projects and housing developments. With a retro campaign encouraging residents to sing Mao-era patriotic songs, those initiatives delighted leftists and won broad support among vast throngs of citizens left behind in China’s race toward wealth.

But among others, the programs raised uncomfortable parallels to Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution crusade against capitalism, in which millions died or were persecuted, and smacked of demagoguery.

“Bo’s basic problem is that he does not operate according to the party’s established practices,” said a journalist for one Communist Party news outlet, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisal. “His way of doing things threatens and scares them.”

Who wins and loses from the attempt to silence Mr. Bo is not completely clear. For the first time, the process of replacing seven of the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo and anointing a president and a premier, will not be dictated by an all-powerful figure like Mao Zedong or Mr. Deng. Instead, they will be chosen by a consensus of elite leaders.

By some accounts, Mr. Bo’s ouster weakens the loose political coalition that is still maintained by Jiang Zemin, who left China’s presidency a decade ago but still wields behind-the-scenes power through officials he has placed in the leadership bureaucracy. Mr. Jiang’s motives are unclear; one of his protégés, Zhou Yongkang, the public security leader and Politburo insider, has been among Mr. Bo’s most vocal backers.

Published Date: Friday, March 16th, 2012 | 01:32 AM

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