There is a palpable sense of unease in Beijing right now. As the Chinese Communist Party attempts to smooth the way for its generational power transfer due this spring, stakes are incredibly high. Seven of the nine positions on the highest level decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, are up for grabs and provoking a party-wide shake-up.

Inevitably, the party will change. Whether this change will be cultural or cosmetic, or better or worse for China overall, is far less certain.

Handing over power is never easy, least of all for authoritarian regimes. For the government of a country that has experienced such continuous social upheaval as modern China, moments such as this can be petrifying. In the past, the CCP’s typical response has been to clamp down on dissent and media to ensure uniformity of narrative and state “stability”. It would appear on the surface that this year is no exception, but that its leverage to clamp down further is evidently approaching exhaustion and its effectiveness nothing what it used to be.

Given the party’s secretive and paranoiac default mode, scandal, speculation and scrutiny could, in its eyes, precipitate the worst case scenario of total loss of control. The spectacular downfall of Standing Committee hopeful Bo Xilai; and the diplomatic crisis brought on by the fly-by-night escape of activist lawyer and house arrestee Chen Guangcheng has brought on all three.

Embarrassingly for those in power, these events have thrown an unwelcome light domestically and internationally on the darker side of the Chinese miracle and go right to the heart of the dilemmas of China’s modernisation. That for all its efforts, the CCP itself was unable deflect this exposure, foreshadows a challenging time ahead for a government desperately holding fast to a diminishing resource: its monopoly on information. In the past it was able to control and direct the political narrative through the media, its well-disciplined bureaucracy, and a relatively content population. Recent events have shown that these conditions can no longer be taken for granted.

The sensational tale of defection, corruption, brutality and murder that drove the fall of the once-mighty Bo Xilai was driven not by official media but through unverified reports by unnamed sources blogged and re-blogged all over the internet. Even though the censors went into overdrive blocking related search terms including the word “Chongqing”, in the absence of a trustworthy media, the rumour maelstrom would not be quelled.

In the end, the party had no other choice. Several weeks into the saga, it cut its losses and confirmed that what it had formerly labelled as “rumours” were in fact well founded. Bo was stood down and has not been seen since, while his wife is now under investigation for murder.

Similarly with Chen, when activists within his network harnessed the internet to document their movements, conversations, disappearances and interrogations, they laid stark the reality of the dangers faced by Chen and his family despite an apparent deal brokered between the US State Department and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to assure his safety.

In doing so, they also exposed the fretful, instinctively repressive response to the affair by China’s Public Security Bureau, raising questions about China’s commitment or even ability to honour its agreements under the supposed deal. Consequently, the US State Department bowed to pressure, reassessed the deal, and decided to further push for Chen’s relocation to study in the United States.

In both cases, whether by the actions of Bo Xilai himself, or through the experiences of Chen Guangcheng, the ugly truth of modern China was blown open, revealing a government relying on increasingly outmoded methods of political control via repression, propaganda, physical abuse and intimidation. More positively though, they also show ordinary Chinese using the internet to take a greater role in setting the national political agenda.

Despite the deserved awe showered on China over the efficiency of its economic development and modern posture, it nevertheless continues to be unwilling or unable to institute the reforms for political liberalisation that would counter its most regressive impulses. As it would appear, time to do so is running out.

China’s drive for full modernisation and global ascendancy will be increasingly fraught, if not a careering wreck, if the party cannot meaningfully grasp the consequences of its no longer having the upper hand when it comes to truth-making in the People’s Republic. But while acknowledging this is easy, actually doing something about is far more difficult.

In his final official address, Wen Jiabao remarked that political reform in China had reached “a critical stage”. Without political reform, he maintained, new problems in Chinese society can’t be resolved and “historical tragedies” such as the Cultural Revolution would be liable to reoccur. One the one hand, this was an obvious swipe at Bo Xilai and his neo-Maoist ideology and brutal, lawless, “sing red and smash black” campaigns that had made him popular in Chongqing, on the other though, it seemed to speak to a truth about modern China: that political liberalisation is seriously and dangerously overdue.

Wen’s speech made it clear that Bo’s time was up. What was and remains unclear though is exactly what he meant by political reforms, how they could avert the more regressive aspects of Chinese political culture that perpetuates repressive actions by authorities, and most importantly, the extent of Wen and the party’s commitment — or even ability — to institute them.

The Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao administration has presided over an impressive period for China  economically and strategically and Chinese people now enjoy unprecedented freedoms in their personal lives. But few if any real efforts have been made to advance political reforms. Perhaps most urgently, China’s judiciary and media have over the past five years at least, found themselves more harshly shackled and subservient to the party line.

Whether this response is to a perception that it is losing authority to an increasingly sophisticated, demanding and internet-savvy Chinese society, or whether civic activism is being driven by greater repression is impossible to know. But it is at point now where it is starting to look like a war of attrition. While it may provide stability in the short-term, the balance is unlikely to last.

Peter Fray

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