For one Communist Party official, nothing illustrates more clearly the remarkable change in China’s political landscape over the past four decades than the contrasting tales of two men — Lin Biao and Wang Lijun.
In September 1971, an airplane carrying Lin Biao, one of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) most famed revolutionary generals and at one point Mao Zedong’s closest right-hand man, crashed in the Mongolian desert, amid rumours of a failed coup attempt — rumours which, until today, remain something of a mystery in China, only referred to obliquely as “the Lin Biao incident.”
“Only two people even knew that one of China’s most well known politicians had died in a plane crash: Zhou Enlai [the then Premier] and Mao Zedong,” the official recounted. “The Party officials were all told only told a month later. And the public? They only found out two months later!”
Exactly four decades on, when the CPC was dealing with another destabilising political scandal at its highest levels, it found very quickly it had no veil of secrecy to hide under.
On February 6, 2012, Wang Lijun, the police chief in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, fled to a United States Consulate in nearby Chengdu seeking protection after a remarkable falling out with his boss, the former Politburo member and Party “princeling” Bo Xilai.
Before Party Central in Beijing could even come up with a response to the embarrassment of witnessing an internal political scandal unfold in a Consulate belonging to its greatest rival, photographs of police cars being deployed in an unprecedented siege around the U.S. building were being shared by tens of thousands of Chinese microbloggers within hours.
The weeks that followed what came to be known as “the Wang Lijun incident” saw for the first time a political scandal being played out in the public domain, and it appeared, on some instances, beyond the ruling party’s control.
Rumours that proliferated on microblogs sharing lurid details about the dealings of Bo Xilai and his family were first met with a wall of silence from State media. One month after his deputy fled to Chengdu, Mr. Bo was sacked, and almost every improbable rumour appeared confirmed.
Qiao Mu, a Beijing-based journalism professor and an outspoken campaigner for political reformers, sees the dramatic change in China’s information landscape as a game-changer for the CPC and its politics.
“Each day,” he said, “so many Chinese are talking about national issues, international issues. What we are seeing is increasing consciousness about how to be a citizen, about rights. The right to express oneself. The right to know. To be well-informed. The right to not only watch CCTV every day!”, he said, referring to the staid State-broadcaster China Central Television.
The widely popular Twitter equivalent Sina Weibo, which has more than 500 million Chinese users, has emerged as a source of vibrant exchange, despite censorship restrictions. “The Chinese government still controls newspapers and television. But it is difficult for them to control the Internet, where there are new technologies coming up every day,” he said.
The Party has, however, proved capable at managing cyberspace so far, employing a vast and complicated apparatus often referred to as the “Great Firewall of China.” The Bo Xilai case showed the CPC had also become adept in what it refers to as “guiding public opinion” through social media, whether through selective leaks of information or by promoting leading public “opinion makers.”
But in the longer term, Mr. Qiao sees as more significant the emergence of what he calls an “Internet civil society” in China. “Marx said once workers were united globally. Now, netizens are united globally,” he said.
In 2011, the Beijing academic was among a group of scholars, journalists and activists who decided to contest local-level elections as “independent candidates” — the CPC only allows direct elections at the lowest administrative levels. Mr. Qiao’s — and the others’ — biggest ally in challenging establishment candidates was cyberspace.
“The Chinese government maybe changes slowly, but there are a lot of people who are beginning to realise our rights at the grassroots level. We want our voice to be heard. We do not want to be represented by other people. Maybe 10 years ago, without Weibo, it is difficult to mobilise your voters, to share your ideas.”
For the first time in his university’s history, Mr. Qiao actually campaigned as any candidate would, enlisting student volunteers, going door-to-door across student dormitories and putting up posters. The authorities soon stepped in, unnerved perhaps about where the campaign would lead. He was stopped from campaigning. Ultimately, he lost the election.
“This was a good example to show how much has changed,” he said.
Managing expectations from an increasingly aware citizenry could emerge as the Party’s biggest challenge going forward. The CPC’s new leader, Xi Jinping, began his term as President in March last year with a high profile anti-corruption campaign, attempting to assuage increasing public anger at rampant graft.
However effective Mr. Xi’s administration may be in addressing public demands over its decade in office, rising expectations mean the process will only become tougher for the CPC leadership in years to come. “Maybe our campaign [to stand as independent candidates] stopped last year, but what about five, ten years later?” Mr. Qiao said.
“We have more and more social media users, more and more people from the younger generation, and a greater consciousness of rights. Many problems in China, social or economic, have a root in the political system. For example, corruption. The party has a strict disciplinary policy, but you still see so many cases each year, or even every day. Everything finally leads to a problem of politics.”
That, at least, hasn’t changed in the days from Mao to Xi.