The Bo Xilai affair is merely the most recent of a long series of scandals. For the past several years, China has been the stage for a web of controversy that has been repeatedly concealed and covered up. When the scandals were too big to hide, China opted for intermediate solutions, either sending the perpetrators into hiding or finding a scapegoat to take the fall. Recycled scripts and recurring scenes have highlighted the ongoing contradictions of Chinese development, social issues that the next CCP Congress will be forced to tackle.
The melamine-tainted milk scandal revealed a lack of oversight that led to serious consequences for public health, which was sacrificed for unrestrained profit. The tragic earthquake in Sichuan saw schools and houses crumble, victims of unregulated building and a lack of safety measures caused by the drive for profit at the cost of ignoring elementary stability measures in a known seismic area. In Wenzhou, in the heart of the prosperous region of Zhejiang, a spectacular train wreck brought to light the misplaced ambitions that led to the push for higher speed trains as a vehicle to bolster political careers, which were soon derailed, like that of the ex-minister of the railroad. The recent flooding in Beijing demonstrated a weak approach to environmental protection, a quest for profits without respect for the land or the people.
The glittering landscape of skyscrapers, an evident symbol of China’s success, is being hit with scandals and tragedy increasingly more often. This all could be accounted for as a byproduct of development, an inevitable price to pay for the overall increase in prosperity. When China renounced the Maoist philosophy, it embarked on a path where economic vitality inevitably contains elements of risk and inequality. The skill of the leadership has been to keep these elements under control and absorb them with the more widespread social improvement. The dramatic new challenge that China is facing now is the chance that it may not live up to this expectation. If at first the scandals seemed like part of the anatomy of the system, their increasing numbers are pointing towards pathology. The willingness of the governed to be administered by their governors is in danger, and the legitimacy of the ruling class, in power since 1949, is beginning to crumble.
It is impossible nonetheless to predict drastic changes that have certainly not been on the horizon, but many signs point to the average citizen being unsatisfied with the apparent lack of security. Those who have experienced only strong growth – 10% of GDP annually for the last 33 years – are not intuitively able to manage slowdowns, insecurity, and glaring inequality. They also receive data now coming available regarding the new rich. The privileges of political heavyweights are well known, and their sexual scandals are no longer covered up.
There are now over a million billionaires in China (according to Hurun, which now publishes a list similar to the Forbs list in the United States. Their goal is for luxury goods; shopping abroad and enrollment for their offspring in the world’s most prestigious universities represent their use. Ever more accurate studies are demonstrating the consistency of the phenomenon, the striking difference in the standards of living, and the fact that many of the super rich belong the CCP.
The Party’s Disciplinary Committee is seeking to put a hold on the phenomenon that is quickly running out of control. Officially 18,487 public officials have been discovered over the last 12 years to have illegally brought or transferred funds abroad. They are the “luo guan,” so-called “naked managers” that continue to prosper in China while sending their families to live abroad. An alternative residence, (New York, California, Australia, Canada) can allow for the transfers without raising alarms with the pretense of university dues and ongoing expenses. More realistically, accurate journalism has discovered large sums of money used to purchase Hollywood-style mansions and maintain a luxurious lifestyle.
A factor connected to the emigration of quality is the search for a new nationality that can protect them from the uncertainties of the Chinese political landscape. Ironically these people have enriched themselves in their home country, but then do not place their trust in the very system that allowed them to prosper. The Bo Xilai affair reflects these contradictions only partially, and it is probably more an effect than a cause. The real challenge China is facing is not so much the existence of inequality, but the difficulty of accepting it. Gaining support through the improvement of quality of life may no longer be enough to temper dissent. The unwritten pact between stability and development needs to be verified. The next People’s Congress in the fall will be the viewing stands and the laboratory for new decisions. The Chinese leadership is adequately prepared to comprehend the dangers presented by society. What remains to be seen is if it will be able to fix the situation and when, and also if by choice or by necessity.