Pe Minxin: The Paranoid Style in Chinese Politics

HONG KONG - Henry Kissinger, who learned a thing or two about political paranoia as Richard Nixon's national security adviser and Secretary of State, famously said that even a paranoid has real enemies. This insight - by the man who will be known forever for helping to open China to the West - goes beyond the question of whether to forgive an individual's irrational behaviour. As the scandal surrounding Bo Xilai's dramatic fall from power shows, it applies equally well to explaining the apparently irrational behavior of regimes.

Most reasonable people would agree that the world's largest ruling party (with nearly 80 million members), with a nuclear-armed military and an unsurpassed internal-security apparatus at its disposal, faces negligible threats to its power at home. And yet the ruling Communist Party has remained brutally intolerant of peaceful dissent and morbidly fearful of the information revolution.

Judging by the salacious details revealed so far in the Bo affair, including the implication of his wife in the murder of a British businessman, it seems that the Party does indeed have good reason to be afraid. If anything, its hold on power is far more tenuous than it appears. Indeed, Bo, the former Party chief of Chongqing, has come to symbolise the systemic rot and dysfunction at the core of a regime often viewed as effective, flexible, and resilient.

Of course, corruption scandals involving high-ranking Chinese officials are common. Two members of the Party Politburo have been jailed for bribery and debauchery. But what sets the Bo scandal apart from routine instances of greed and lust is the sheer lawlessness embodied by the behaviour of members of China's ruling elites. The Bo family, press reports allege, not only has amassed a huge fortune, but also was involved in the murder of a Westerner who had served as the family's chief private conduit to the outside world.

While in power, Bo was lauded for crushing organised crime and restoring law and order in Chongqing. Now it has come to light that he and his henchmen illegally detained, tortured, and imprisoned many innocent businessmen during this campaign, simultaneously stealing their assets. While publicly proclaiming their patriotism, other members of China's ruling elites are stashing their ill-gotten wealth abroad and sending their children to elite Western schools and universities.

The Bo affair has revealed another source of the regime's fragility: the extent of the power struggle and disunity among the Party's top officials. Personal misdeeds or character flaws did not trigger Bo's fall from power; these were well known. He was simply a loser in a contest with those who felt threatened by his ambition and ruthlessness.

The vicious jockeying for power that the party faces during its leadership succession this year, and the public rift that has resulted from Bo's humiliating fall, must have gravely undermined mutual trust among the party's top leaders. China's history of political turmoil, and the record of failed authoritarian regimes elsewhere, suggests that a disunited autocracy does not last very long. Its most dangerous enemy typically comes from within.

Moreover, the amateurish manner in which the Party has handled the Bo scandal indicates that it has no capacity for dealing with a fast-moving political crisis in the Internet age. While political infighting obviously might lie behind the Chinese government's hesitancy and ineptness in managing the scandal, the Party undermined its public credibility further by initially trying to cover up the seriousness of the affair.

After Wang Lijun, Bo's former police chief, very publicly sought asylum in the United States' consulate in Chengdu, a city some four hours from Chongqing, the Party thought that it could keep the Bo skeleton in the closet. Using language that would make George Orwell blush, officials declared that Wang 'suffered from exhaustion from overwork' and was receiving 'vacation-style treatment'; in fact, he was being interrogated by the secret police.

What made the Party's top brass lose face - and sleep - was the failure of China's famed 'Great Firewall' during the Bo saga. Attempts to censor the Internet and mobile text services failed miserably. Chinese citizens, for the first time in history, were able to follow - and openly voice their opinions about - an unfolding power struggle at the very top of the Party almost in real time.

Fortunately for the Party, public outrage over the lawlessness and corruption of leaders like Bo has been expressed in cyberspace, not in the streets. But who knows what will happen when the next political crisis erupts?

China's leaders, we can be sure, are asking themselves precisely that question, which helps to explain why a regime that has apparently done so well for so long is so afraid of its own people.

It is difficult to say whether a paranoid with real enemies is easier to deal with than one without any. But, for China's government, which rules the world's largest population, paranoia itself has become the problem. Overcoming it requires not only a change of mindset, but a total transformation of the political system.

Pei Minxin is Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.