Secrecy culture veils Chinese decision-making


West’s view that China will somehow become ‘like us’ is wishful thinking, writes CLIFFORD COONANin Beijing

IN THE weeks since the sacking and disappearance of Communist Party secretary Bo Xilai in the southwestern city of Chongqing, government-backed satellite TV has resumed broadcasting regular TV series during prime time.

One year earlier, it dropped all sitcoms and commercials in favour of programmes featuring revolutionary songs and communist morality tales between 7.30pm and 11pm, part of a “red revivalist” drive by Bo.

Now, Chongqing Satellite Television is gearing up to show a series of new entertainment shows and bring back TV ads.

The handsome, telegenic Bo seemed a shoe-in for the politburo standing committee, the pinnacle of power in China, and his sacking earlier this month was a purge in the classic Cold War vein.

So, is this a fight between traditional communists, who want a return to the values of the era of Mao Zedong, on one side, and reformers on the one side, trying to inject a dose of limited democracy into the party’s increasingly sclerotic veins?

Or is it a straightforward purge, and was the decision to get rid of Bo a certainty as soon as his former right-hand man and police chief Wang Lijun tried to defect to the United States at the Chengdu consulate in a dramatic event that remains shrouded in mystery.

It’s a fair guess that there is a lot of jockeying for position going on in the politburo ahead of the leadership changeover this year, when President Hu Jintao will hand over power to his anointed successor Xi Jinping.

For sure, Bo’s “red revival” campaign must have angered many in the party on the more liberal wing, who disliked his populism. Sending cadres and students to work in the countryside and organising revolutionary choirs, all smacked of a return to the chaotic period of ideological zealotry known as the Cultural Revolution, and Premier Wen Jiabao said as much at the National People’s Congress, sealing Bo’s fate.

Bo is the son of the revered communist revolutionary Bo Yibo. For all his populism, Bo was probably not calling for a return to the Cultural Revolution. He was jailed for four years at its height, and there is a suggestion that his mother’s mysterious death was related to the Cultural Revolution.

However, Bo isn’t around to answer any of these questions as he is missing, most likely under house arrest.

A powerful culture of secrecy prevails on decision-making in China, despite the heady advances in the economy, and this makes it difficult to assert anything with authority about what is going on among decision-makers.

The Bo Xilai story, and two other examples this week from China, tell different stories but yield interesting insights on how power is wielded today in the world’s most populous nation.

Tibetan singer Ugyen Tenzin’s latest album was dedicated to Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, and was entitled An Unending Flow of My Heart’s Blood. According to sources in Tibetan areas, the 25-year-old singer was detained shortly after the album’s release.

When it comes to highly public messages with which the Communist Party disagrees, censorship and detention is common, as with Ai Weiwei and others. Ugyen Tenzin must have known he would irritate the powers-that-be by making an album about the man the communists call a “dangerous splittist”, especially at a time of heightened tension when dozens of Tibetans are protesting against Chinese rule by self-immolating. However, some Tibetan writers work in relative freedom. Censorship is arbitrary in how it is applied and this is also part of the culture of secrecy.

In restive Xinjiang in western China, a court recently sentenced an ethnic Uighur man to death after convicting him of terrorist acts, including a deadly knife and hatchet attack last month. An official news site run by the regional government of Xinjiang reported that a Kashgar court handed down the verdict this week against Abudukeremu Mamuti, saying he spread religious extremism and terrorism while recruiting others between July 2011 and February this year.

In July 2009, local Uighurs turned on Han Chinese in the Xinjiang regional capital Urumqi – an incident that led to deadly reprisals by Han on Uighurs days later. The riots killed nearly 200 people, mostly ethnic Han Chinese.

Since then, the central government has been hardline in Xinjiang and many Uighurs have been executed, but there is little transparency on how Chinese rule is policed in Xinjiang.

There is a belief in the west that China will some day come around to the western way of thinking and become somehow “like us”, but this is not how things are seen in China. There is a genuine feeling within the party that something new is being forged, an authoritarian model of government that may be a first in the world. But how it works is a secret, even to Bo Xilai.