For Leaders, Fear at the Top?

In a New York Times Opinion, Harvard’s Roderick MacFarquhar writes that the Bo Xilai scandal – and the revelations about the wealth and lifestyle of his family and the families of other “princelings” – has suggested an underlying fear among China’s leadership about the country’s future:

This may seem strange, given that the Chinese have propelled their country into the top ranks of global economic powerhouses over the past 30 years. There are those who predict a hard landing for an overheated economy — where growth has already slowed — but the acquisition of wealth is better understood not just as an economic cushion, or as pure greed, but as a political hedge.

China’s Communist leaders cling to Deng Xiaoping’s belief that their continuance in power will depend on economic progress. But even in China, a mandate based on competence can crumble in hard times. So globalizing one’s assets — transferring money and educating one’s children overseas — makes sense as a hedge against risk. (At least $120 billion has been illegally transferred abroad since the mid-1990s, according to one official estimate.)

Today, the party’s 80 million members are still powerful, but most join the party for career advancement, not idealism. Every day, there are some 500 protests, demonstrations or riots against corrupt or dictatorial local party authorities, often put down by force. The harsh treatment that prompted the blind human-rights advocate Chen Guangcheng to seek American protection is only one of the most notorious cases. The volatile society unleashed against the state by Mao almost 50 years ago bubbles like a caldron. Stories about the wealth amassed by relatives of party leaders like Mr. Bo, who have used their family connections to take control of vast sectors of the economy, will persuade even loyal citizens that the rot reaches to the very top.

Last week, The Guardian reported that three retired CCP officials called on leaders to disclose their family wealth before the issue further erodes the party’s grip on power ahead of the upcoming leadership succession.