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Will Bo Xilai affair open the 'black box' of China's leadership?

Just how politician Bo Xilai's stunning fall from grace might modify the mysterious manner in which power is shared and wielded in Beijing is still hard to discern.

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"He got in the way of the train," says Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based analyst of Communist Party politics. "The leadership could not necessarily agree on his policies, but they could agree that he was a political obstacle."

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Decisionmaking at the top of the party "is still a black box," says Zheng Yongnian, dean of East Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. "The system does not have formal rules, transparency, or the rule of law."

"There is an amazing lack of institutionalization in Chinese elite politics," adds Dr. Moses. "The political culture here is like the traffic; there are just enough rules to prevent chaos."

Bo's open challenge to the leading figures in the current government, however, meant that in the absence of rules the only way to block him was a pileup. So when Bo's right-hand man fled to a US consulate seeking asylum, Bo's enemies pounced, even though they knew the resulting scandal would damage the party's image.

"This case has revealed a series of flaws in the Chinese political system," says Cheng Li, a prominent analyst of Chinese elite politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It's a wake-up call. But if the Communist Party continues to pretend that this is just an exception instead of seeking reasons for what happened … the party's days will be numbered. They have to reform before it is too late."

Lessons from the Bo Xilai affair

Possible reforms, Dr. Li suggests, might include presenting more candidates than there are seats for the 25-member Politburo and for the Standing Committee, implementing the constitutional provision that not even the Communist Party is above the law, and opening up the official media so that it becomes a reliable source of information to rival the rumors that proliferate on social media.

Other analysts, however, suspect that the scandal – far from prompting reform – will provoke an even tighter closing of ranks at the top, stifling debate.

"The Bo Xilai affair has served as a cautionary tale and a reminder to top leaders that they have let factional politics go too far," argues Zhang Jian, a professor of politics at Peking University. "Factionalism must not rock the ship … or they could hurt themselves."

Factionalism, however, does stir policy debate.

"The solidarity of the top leadership at the moment is unprecedented," says Professor Zhang, and he predicts that "the Bo Xilai case will be very bad for the general development of political democracy in China." The party's most urgent task is to reinforce its legitimacy in the public eye, says Li. "Public confidence in the leadership has been damaged by the allegations of corruption."

Party propagandists are presenting the Bo Xilai scandal as an isolated incident that will be properly dealt with. "Whoever has broken the law will be handled in accordance with law and will not be tolerated, no matter who is involved," The People's Daily declared last week.

This presents the authorities with a quandary, however. How publicly should they present the evidence against Bo and his wife, should they come to trial? On one hand, unless the prosecution presents a convincing case, party cadres may fear they are witnessing a return to the old ways of the Cultural Revolution, when political enemies were framed on luridly concocted charges. But too detailed an explanation of the corruption, money laundering, and other allegations made against the couple would prove extremely embarrassing to the party.

"This whole incident is full of plots and schemes," complains Li Datong, a former editor of a Communist Party youth weekly. "There has been no transparency. If the leadership were to allow an open trial, that would represent real progress."

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