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Scandal in Power Transfer Nothing New for China

April 26, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The scandal around ousted Chinese political leader Bo Xilai deepened Thursday when The New York Times reported that he used wiretaps to spy on other officials, including President Hu Jintao. Margaret Warner, The Financial Times' Richard McGregor and Xiao Qiang of the Berkeley China Internet Project discuss the new developments.
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more on this rapidly unfolding story, we turn to Richard McGregor, a longtime correspondent in Beijing for The Financial Times and other papers, and author of “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers,” and Xiao Qiang, director of the Berkeley China Internet Project at U.C. Berkeley and editor of the China Digital Times, an online publication.

Welcome to you both.

So, Richard McGregor, beginning with you, what do you make of this latest bombshell, that Bo Xilai’s bugging system wasn’t just bugging crime figures, which was the ostensible reason, but top Chinese officials?

RICHARD MCGREGOR, The Financial Times: Well, it’s really the latest fascinating insight into the sort of hitherto closed world of Chinese politics.

And on this occasion, frankly, it’s positively Nixonian, isn’t it? I suspect that a lot of this goes on. What is one of the most remarkable aspects of a remarkable case is that we’re learning about it in almost real time. It often takes years for this to come out.

I’m sure they bug all — each other. They all keep files of dirt on each other. And it’s just at different tipping points when they become valuable and are used. But it certainly shows that’s how they play the game internally, and it’s very tough.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Xiao Qiang, does this also suggest that the reason he’s been not only stripped of power, but humiliated, is not just the murder and the original stories we heard?

XIAO QIANG, Berkeley China Internet Project, University of California, Berkeley: I think everyone who lives China, grows China, is an adult in Chinese society or someone familiar with Chinese politics will understand.

It’s not because the — Mr. Bo’s — some wrongdoing, such as his family members involved in a murder case or himself and his close partners, police chief Wang Lijun, involved in wiretapping a leader, causing his downfall.

It’s because he’s being sacked. He’s a loser of a Chinese political struggle now, and then there’s dirt now coming out against him. Everyone familiar with the Chinese authoritarian regime, a one-party, closed-box, dark politics will believe Mr. Bo, all these charges and the new facts against him are probably not an exception, such as his couple — this couple, the Bo family, has been — secretly transferred $6 billion U.S. worth of funds to U.S., the British and other overseas banking accounts according to, again, another Chinese official’s leaking.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, all of this leaking.

So, Richard McGregor, there have been reports on the Internet — and then I want to get back to Mr. Xiao about the Internet, too, because that’s his expertise — but that actually that Bo Xilai was actually trying to undermine the current Chinese leadership and perhaps even the presumed successor to President Hu, Xi Jinping.

Is that — is there evidence of that?

RICHARD MCGREGOR: There’s no direct evidence of that.

I think his major crime, if you like, politically, was to campaign so publicly for a place in the inner circle of the Chinese leadership. He was a very charismatic Western-style politician. That doesn’t sit well with other leaders, because you’re meant to do your business behind closed doors.

Having said that, I mean, it’s true they all have dirt on each other, but this is pretty exceptional. Not every top Chinese leader is involved or their families are involved in murder. And that makes it exceptional. He’s a loser in a power struggle, but there’s more to it than that, I think.

MARGARET WARNER: Back to you, Mr. Xiao. You’re smiling. Did you have a comment you wanted to make? Or I was just going to ask you a. . .

XIAO QIANG: Well, I guess we don’t know if other leaders’ family members have been involved or not, right, not until they became a loser.

RICHARD MCGREGOR: Well, that’s true, but this is a pretty remarkable case. I don’t think we should assume they’re all sort of stuffing cyanide down foreign businessmen in hotel rooms.

(LAUGHTER)

MARGARET WARNER: Back to you, Mr. Xiao.

XIAO QIANG: This is because of murder involving a foreigner, a British.

But here’s the information in politics that — with the Chinese characteristics, if you want to call it, because in a democratic, open society, the political enemies will go after each other in an open media space. But in a closed Chinese high politics, the party media is not usually being used in that way, that different political agenda or different political opponents go after each other.

But in the Internet age, it became the information become rumors that leak to foreign media, to Hong Kong and Taiwan newspapers, to Internet, even to the micro-blogging spaces. And every fight of this political struggle is trying to — maneuvering the informational politics and advancing their own agenda.

MARGARET WARNER: So, do you agree, Richard McGregor, that even though there’s much made of how they’re trying to shut down — if you try to Google — or, of course, you can’t Google anymore in China, but if you try to search for Bo Xilai or Gu Kailai, it’s blocked, but that actually Chinese officials are involved in leaking all this to the Western press and getting it on the Internet?

RICHARD MCGREGOR: Well, there’s certainly much more leaking. . .

XIAO QIANG: Yes.

RICHARD MCGREGOR: . . . than usual.

You can’t control it like you used to be able to. And because of that, clearly, some senior factions are using this to — for their own ends, just like they do in the West. I mean, I think they are overall trying to close it down. But, as our other guest knows better than most, that’s just about impossible to do these days.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Xiao Qiang, where is this going?

XIAO QIANG: Well, first of all, this is a — biggest political scandal since Tiananmen massacre, in the last 20 — almost 20, 33 years.

But, again, it’s not such an exception if you consider the history of Chinese Communist Party since People’s Republic of China being founded. Almost whenever it comes the highest power transition, almost every single time that the number two or the original candidate or some huge political struggle will happen and someone will go down, whether it’s . . .

Ten years ago, the current president Hu Jintao’s term — transition was actually exceptionally smooth. But now we see that was only an exception. The fundamentally, inherently instability of such a regime in terms of the higher power transition is being illustrated dramatically in the Internet age by Mr. Bo Xilai’s case.

XIAO QIANG: . . . people will see that.

MARGARET WARNER: And we’re just about out of time.

XIAO QIANG: Go ahead.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Richard McGregor, so do you think there is a large — is this exposing a larger split between real factions, or is this just one rogue party guy who got out of step and he’s being put down?

RICHARD MCGREGOR: No, I think that’s the key point.

We all — China has been moving to institutionalizing how to hand over power, which communist societies are very — systems are very, very bad at. They looked like they did it 10 years ago. They look like they’re able to do it this time.

MARGARET WARNER: This fall.

RICHARD MCGREGOR: This fall.

But whether they can is a really open question. It’s also the question of whether something like this will make the party close up and become less transparent than ever, or whether reformers, as we’re reporting tomorrow, want to sort of constitutionalize the system, make it more open, put up more candidates for the jobs, and try and sort of make it more democratic, not in the U.S. sense, of course, but generally.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, it will be fascinating to watch.

Richard McGregor and Xiao Qiang, thank you both.

XIAO QIANG: Thank you.