Gu Kailai and the Rise of Elite Insecurity

Reaching back into the days of Mao, The Diplomat’s Minxin Pei ponders what the murder charges brought against Gu Kailai say about the political security of China’s top leaders:

Some observers may object by saying that purging senior officials on corruption charges is quite different from sacking them because of ideological disloyalty or factional power struggle, as was the case during the Maoist era.  This difference may be technically true but substantively and politically irrelevant.  In terms of fostering a dreaded sense of insecurity among the top ruling elites, corruption charges and alleged political offenses are no different.

First, like political offenses, corruption charges can be concocted.  The alleged evidence against the two Chens, for example, revealed two far-fetched and weak cases.  It is common knowledge that the two Chens fell not because of corruption, but because of their political ambitions and disloyalty.  The same could be said of the causes of Bo’s collapse.

Second, because China’s top elites, who personally or directly may have little involvement in corrupt activities but who all have family members and relatives who engage in questionable or illegal business deals, no one at the top is absolutely safe.  At the moment, the Party seems to have drawn the line at the Politburo Standing Committee level — Politburo members are not safe, but Politburo Standing Committee members enjoy absolute immunity, because purges at the highest level of the Party would be too destabilizing.  But since this arrangement is not ironclad, who knows when the Party will decide to go after one of the top nine leaders in the future?

Third, once brought down in a power struggle, even China’s top rulers lack minimal legal protection.  They cannot pick lawyers or have the ability to challenge the charges against them in an independent judiciary.  Their verdict and penalty are typically decided, not by professional judges after the conclusion of the proceedings, but by top political leaders behind closed doors.

What this analysis reveals — and what the case against Bo and his wife shows — is that political security for China’s top rulers today has deteriorated so much that, in some crucial ways, they might feel that they are back to the bad old Maoist days.  Elite disunity and vicious infighting is now the rule, not the exception. This cannot be reassuring news for a regime ruled by individuals whose daily nightmare is that they will one day become another Bo Xilai.


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