Monday, March 26, 2012

Rumours of coups & crashes point to unease in CPC

Rumours are flying around Chinese cyberspace claiming that an attempted military coup has been thwarted by the swift intervention of Chinese authorities in Beijing. The somewhat wild rumours are likely false but point to a probable power struggle in the central government [BBC / FT / NightWatch].

Increased security

Coming only days after Bo Xilai was ousted from his position, there are claims that a close supporter Zhou Yongkang may also have been set for the push. If true it would indicate a growing clash between economic reformers and Maoist traditionalists.

State media reported last week that 3,300 party cadres from the security apparatus would be sent to Beijing for ideological retraining. The order was highly unusual, but even more so given the report omitted to mention Zhou Yongkang, who heads the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee that is recalling the cadres.

This has created speculation that Zhou, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and until now one of the most powerful men in China, might be pushed out from the party for his backing of Bo Xilai.

An increased security presence in central Beijing, including armed SWAT teams at some subway stations has only served to fuel the rumours. The security presence may not be that significant given the recent meetings of communist party officials in the capital.

Underlying tensions

Nonetheless Jin Zhong, a veteran political analyst based in Hong Kong, suggests that there may be some truth to the rumours only in as much that underlying tensions between economic reformers and Maoist traditionalists might be growing.

"It hasn't reached the point where you are going to hear gunshots. It is not like when China arrested the Gang of Four in 1976, but there is a very strong conflict going on," Jin told the LA Times.

Given the opaque nature of the Communist Party it is difficult to say with any certainty whether Zhou will meet the same fate of Bo Xilai. But given his loyal support to the former governor of Chongqing, Zhou will have won few friends in the CPC. However since he is due to retire at the 18th Party Congress in October, Jin doubts he will be forced out before then. "They won't touch anybody on the Standing Committee before the congress. It is too risky. They've put in a big effort trying to present a picture of stability"

Some reports are worrisome. The Mingjing News, a US-based news portal, said that Bo Xilai had been scheming with Zhou Yongkang to prevent vice president and heir apparent Xi Jinping from being confirmed as President Hu Jintao's successor. It also reported that Bo had purchased 5,000 rifles and 50,000 rounds of ammunition through the Chongqing Public Security Bureau, causing nervousness in Beijing [Want China Times].

Censoring the rumours

Such reports cannot be verified officially, and whether or not there is any basis in fact Chinese censors have been swift in removing any political gossip from the Internet [Daily Mail / Globe and Mail].

Pictures on state television of Zhou Yongkang meeting local politicians has dampened the speculation that he had been arrested, but not the discussions of how his comrade in arms Bo Xilai fell from grace with communist party officials.

The latest theories to emerge concerning Bo's purge from the party hinges on his son Bo Guagua. Educated at Harrow, Oxford and Harvard, the son of the former Chongqing politician has been described as a playboy whose antics may have, in part, led to his father's fall from grace [Daily Mail].

Contradiction of values

Bo Xilai, whose own father was a revolutionary hero and a friend of Chairman Mao, made his name by cracking down on gangs, preaching a return to egalitarian Communist principles, and by reviving the waving of red flags and the singing of Maoist anthems. But just as Mao lived a lavish lifestyle while preaching socialist values, Bo also exploited his powerful position. He was known for his love of tailored suits and Jaguar cars, and the fact that he educated his son at top schools and universities abroad all added up to a contradiction of values.

The party as a whole is trying to distance itself from such overt displays of wealth, especially as the poverty gap widens in China. The lavish lifestyles and the favouritism apparently shown towards officials and their families has brought increasing embarrassment for the CPC. Only after concerted campaigns or widespread publicity have authorities stepped in to punish crimes committed by party officials or their family members.

Li Tianyi, the 15-year-old son of a senior Chinese army general, was sent to a detention centre for a year after being convicted of assaulting a couple in the street who blocked the path of the BMW he was driving. In a notorious case in 2010, Li Qiming, the drunken son of a senior police officer in China's Hebei province, ran over and killed a university student, then told onlookers before fleeing, "My father is Li Gang." The 22-year-old was arrested and jailed for six years, but only after hundreds of thousands of angry messages were posted on Chinese micro-blogs.

Censoring complaints

Such complaints are often stifled however with government censors deleting messages posted on micro-blogs. Last week, the word Ferrari was banned from Internet search engines across China amid rumours that the son of a senior Communist Party official had been killed in a high-speed car crash in the capital. Two female passengers were said to have been seriously injured when the Ferrari 458 split in two after crashing into a bridge at 4am last Sunday [18/03/2012].

While the crash was reported in Chinese media [Beijing Evening News - Chinese] along with a photograph by reporter Yu Xiang, details have been sketchy and the identity of the driver has not been released, fueling speculation that the person behind the wheel must have been connected with someone in the government.

Such rumours cannot be substantiated, but the censorship of any mention of the crash and a failure to release details of the incident has only added to suspicions. 'Ferrari' was not the only banned term. Other words deemed out of bounds were "Shangshu" (a government official title in Imperial China), North 4th Ring Road + car accident, Baofusi + car accident, and "falali" which is the phonetic Chinese pronunciation of the word Ferrari [BBC / ABC / CMP / WSJ].

The continued censorship and control of the news, as well as the ousting of individuals seen either as a physical threat or just a mere embarrassment to the party, seems to underlie a growing sense of unease within the leadership as it nears a transition. [Pictured: Zhou Yongkang & Bo Xilai. Playing cards courtesy of MostWantedChinesePlayingCards]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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