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What’s Left, Who’s Right?

Why did the Chinese Communists purge Bo Xilai?

Apr 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 28 • By ROSS TERRILL
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“Only in the abstract is communism a beautiful thing,” Xie Tao wrote. “In practice it is very bad and produces chaos. It is like our Chinese ideal of da tong,” a reference to the utopian “Great Unity” of the 19th-century philosopher Kang Youwei.

The social democrats, deeply hostile to the one-party state, say the CCP has replaced socialism with quasi-capitalism, so China should take the next step and adopt the political system, liberal democracy, that has accompanied capitalism throughout the West. They claim Sweden, which combines social democratic politics with capitalism, has less economic inequality than Communist-ruled China. What’s so great about one-party rule if it offers less “fairness” (a big cry in China at present) than social democracy in Europe does? No wonder one young social democrat, after listening in to a leftist salon criticizing Xie Tao, observed: “They think we’re traitors, following in the footsteps of Gorbachev.”

Xie Tao and Li Rui cannot be styled dissidents, but rather distinguished retired figures making constant intellectual mischief for the party. Neither signed Charter 08, a pro-democracy manifesto written by Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo; Li Rui told me it was too confrontational. Before his death, Xie Tao said he was told Hu read the 2007 article and promptly added Sweden to his itinerary for an upcoming European trip. Sometimes these veterans get a phone call from a party official suggesting “a cup of tea” at the precise time scheduled for one of their social democracy salons.


It is striking that the CCP has until now allowed debate, in society broadly and especially on the Internet, between quasi-Maoists and social democrats. The party makes it known that it does not agree with Mao’s grandson or with people like Xie Tao, but it does not silence them. To its credit, the party, while saying both left and right wings depart from the “scientific development concept,” allows the two to snipe at each other.

Quite another matter is a flamboyant senior figure like Bo armed with policies that may challenge the gray consensual caution of Beijing. Bo paid a price for popping his head up on a low assembly line. Still more threatening would be a senior figure on the right, a Chinese Boris Yeltsin, who resigned his party post and made the case for social democracy as the political path for China’s quasi-capitalist economy.

For the moment we are left with the unruffled calm that was displayed by Xi Jinping on his U.S. visit and is meant to convince the Chinese people and the world that the governance of China is scientifically managed and politics should not concern anyone but the all-wise party. Some will see this as a skillful balancing act, a CCP steering a safe middle ground, smoothly discouraging enemies to left and right.

Yet hardly a single bold decision has been made in Beijing since the death 15 years ago of Deng, who made many, and none in the years of Hu. This determinedly collective leadership in Beijing, somewhat resembling the semifinal years of the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev, could be suffering from a no-risks paralysis. Should an economic or social crisis occur—a sharp slowdown in economic growth, social trouble simultaneously in the Muslim west and the business-friendly southeast—basic principles would be at stake, arguments would soar, and the remarkable unity of the CCP since 1989 could crack.

The vast difference from the former Soviet Union is that post-Mao China has had over 30 years of remarkable economic progress, thanks to Deng’s turn against Maoism starting in 1978. Gorbachev had no post-Stalin decades of dismantling central planning to build on in Moscow; Brezhnev presided over economic stagnation as well as political stasis. Whoever leads China a decade from now, regardless of where current and future gyrations within the Communist party may lead, will benefit from the economic transformation of China that the CCP triggered, and the modest intellectual ferment it permitted, in its terrified flight from the Cultural Revolution.

Ross Terrill, associate in research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, is the author of Mao, The New Chinese Empire, and Madame Mao.

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