Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

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China´s tough-guy act masks growing jitters
The Times - August 6th 2012

These days, Chinese efficiency is much admired. Indeed, until our Olympics got successfully under way, London lingered under the shadow of Beijing’s ruthlessly spectacular Games four years ago, a tad nervous that our old-world democracy look stumbling and shambling by comparison. Well, this week, as the London Games near their own spectacular close, more evidence of Chinese efficiency will be on display, when a certain Mrs Gu Kailai stands trial for the murder of Neil Heywood.

      The British businessman and fixer was killed last November in a hotel room in Chongqing, a massive inland city that is the Chicago of China, with all that that analogy entails, positive and negative. Mrs Gu, wife of the city’s ambitious party secretary, Bo Xilai, was arrested for the murder only in April.

      Yet barely three months later her trial is about to begin and Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, has said that the evidence she faces is “irrefutable”. So not much point mounting a defence, Mrs Gu, wealthy lawyer though you are. The trial is not even taking place in Chongqing, but in a city called Hefei more than 650 miles away. And don’t bother queuing for a seat to watch the gripping proceedings: apparently all the places in the courtroom are already taken. Convenient, that.

      There, however, is where the clarities end. Whatever is said in the trial, no one outside the top echelons of the Communist Party will ever know whether Mrs Gu really poisoned Mr Heywood, nor even whether he was really murdered. No outsiders at present know what has happened to her husband, who until this scandal broke was pushing uncomfortably hard for a place in China’s top decision-making body, the Standing Committee of the Politburo.

      Nor, really, does anyone know what either the current Standing Committee or the new leadership that is due to be announced this autumn think of the whole Bo scandal. The son of one of Mao’s Long Marchers, Bo Xilai was a charismatic star who, in the style of modern Communist Party leaders, sent his son to Harrow, Oxford and Harvard with the help of Mr Heywood.

      By defenestrating him, whether with trumped up charges against his wife or with a new-found zeal to punish privileged criminals, the Party has got rid of an uncomfortably individualistic, populist character, and can return to being safely dull, grey, faceless and stable instead. That is the optimistic and arguably likeliest interpretation. Keen China-watchers will notice a few changes when the new Standing Committee line-up emerges, but no one else will.

      Yet the reason why the Bo scandal and his wife’s trial matters, beyond the airport-thriller nature of the story, is that this interpretation is far from solid. These are nervous times for China, and the Bo affair has added to the jitters. The likely result, for the rest of us, is more Chinese nationalism, often of a scratchier, more assertive sort.

      If you point to the Arab uprising and suggest that the same sort of popular revolt could happen in China, an army of Sinologists will jump on you to say that you are wrong, because memories of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s are so recent, because ordinary Chinese already feel freer than ever before, and because the Communist Party is resilient and full of smart people. And someone at the Chinese embassy will invite you to tea, in order to tell you how Chinese people love stability and harmony, and that western ideas like democracy are of no relevance there.

      So far, this has always been true. And maybe it will be this time too. But one group of people who are taking no chances about it are the Chinese leadership themselves. That is why Bo Xilai has disappeared into house arrest, why Mrs Gu’s trial is happening so quickly and (they hope) obscurely, and why every time in the past 18 months there has been even a flicker of popular emulation of the Arab protests it has been quickly snuffed out.

      For like the fall of the Soviet Union and the Arab Uprising, the necessary conditions for a Chinese Uprising will be there many times before it eventually happens. And when it does happen, everyone will say that no one predicted it. 

      One condition for widespread popular protest is anger and disenchantment at the privileges of the regime’s leadership. Sure enough, the Bo affair has exposed those privileges, and has also shown how much more difficult it has become in the internet age to control the flow of information and discussion, even with “Great Firewalls” and propaganda departments as powerful as China’s are.

      The second, and most vital, condition however is economic. China’s wondrous economy has certainly slowed down in recent months. Like in 1997-98 and in 2008-09, during previous slowdowns, economists are poring over data for things like electricity consumption and steel output to try to tell whether the official GDP figures showing annual growth still at 7.4% are being manipulated to disguise something worse.

      The consensus is that they probably are, but not yet by much. There is no sign of mass losses of jobs, or the return of millions of migrant workers to their home villages. Protests remain overwhelmingly local, about pollution for example, rather than anything worryingly national and political.

      Nevertheless, until the new leadership has settled in without further scandal and until the economy is plainly back in fine fettle, the Party and its military allies have just one option with which to maintain popularity and legitimacy: nationalism.

      It has already been seen in China’s increasingly assertive behaviour over disputed islands and under-sea resources in the South and East China Seas, standing up rather rudely against neighbours including Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan, and even strengthening a military garrison on some of the islands. And it has been seen in the even-more-touchy-than-usual response by Xinhua to remarks by America’s Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, during her current tour of Africa warning Africans against unnamed countries exploiting resources.

      Such assertive Chinese behaviour has been condemned by other Asian commentators, such as the veteran Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, as being counter-productive and even uncharacteristically incompetent. And so it is. But international audiences are not the main target: domestic ones are.

      With our own BBC News reporting daily on the Olympics in a surprisingly nationalistic and sometimes unsporting way, we should perhaps take care before warning about others’ pandering to domestic audiences. But sport is one thing. Sending out gunboats to confront neighbours is quite another. We can expect more of it.


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