With the recent Bo Xilai saga, fault lines in the façade of Communist Party unity are emerging in a very public way. After the split between the Zhao Ziyang reformist camp and Li Peng’s hardliners in 1989 emboldened Tiananmen protestors, the Party now rightfully worries about the public sensing any weakness in the top leadership.
Even if the events around Bo hadn’t unfolded, the party would still be very much on edge. Later this year it will pass the torch to a new group of authoritarian leaders; and it’ll do so amid simmering social tension and unprecedented channels of mass communication. To protect itself, the party has recently taken measures demanding loyalty and respect for its relevance.
In January, President-in-waiting Xi Jinping called for more “thought control” over university students. This week, China ordered all lawyers to make a pledge of loyalty to the Communist Party. And yesterday, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily ran a commentary opposing “indiscipline” in the army saying, “To resolutely do what the Party asks, and not to do what the Party asks not to do, is the most straightforward measure to oppose indiscipline.”
Army personnel, lawyers and students are real threats to the party. Student intellectuals were behind the Tiananmen Square uprising. Lawyers tend to have an affinity for the written law rather than the whims of leaders – which undermines authoritarian rule. And the military, well, they have guns.
The last group is especially worrisome.
The past few days have seen rumors of a Beijing coup circulating online. While these rumors are unfounded, the idea of a military coup is hardly far-fetched. Worry of this scenario within government ranks became apparent even before the rumors with a series of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily articles calling for “opposition to the ‘erroneous views’ of military nationalization, military de-politicization, and non-party affiliation of the Army, and putting ideological and political construction first.”
The PLA, by law, is bound to protect the Communist Party first – not the country. Calling for the army to be loyal to the nation rather than a single political party was one of the things that landed Liu Xiaobo in jail.
When Deng Xiaoping started to hand power over to Jiang Zemin in the early 90’s, he reportedly had some sage advice for his successor: “Spend four out of five working days with the top [military] brass.”
For a party which then had neither socialist nor democratic-based legitimacy, the loyalty of the military was the only guarantor of continued rule. Jiang listened and did manage to stay in the good graces of the military throughout his tenure by consistently increasing military spending and taking a hard-line on Taiwan. When Hu Jintao came to power he continued the military buildup, but took a softer stance on the island. The Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou was elected president in 2008, allowing Hu to engage Taiwan culturally and economically – which tacitly took a military takeover off the table for the foreseeable future. This wasn’t good news for PLA hawks anxious to use their toys.
Last year, the PLA gave a subtle indictment of Hu by launching an unannounced test of the new J-20 stealth fighter during a visit by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Xi Jinping will take control this year lacking even the degree of support from the military that Hu has. He’ll likely have to spend at least the first year consolidating power and PLA loyalty – assuming the leadership transition goes smoothly to begin with. But if the factional fractures become too deep, military hawks could decide to settle the matter themselves.
Whether the party’s rather pathetic demands for loyalty during this contentious period will be enough to maintain unchallenged authority remains to be seen. But whether they’re students, lawyers or soldiers, people aren’t getting any dumber. What they are getting is better connected and less patient with the political status quo. As one of the PLA Daily commentaries aptly points out, “Historical experience shows that, when the Party and the country are facing big issues, hostile forces at home and abroad always stir up trouble, noises in the society also increase, and the people’s thinking becomes more active.”
Translation: People are starting to think beyond what they’re told – and that’s bad news for the party.