A funny thing happened recently on the road to China’s supposedly inexorable rise to global power. Actually, a couple of funny things.
First and most prominent has been the scandal swirling around Bo Xilai, onetime Politburo member and party boss in Chonqqing, who has now been removed from power–and from sight–because of a variety of corruption and abuse-of-power allegations. The latest twist is the news that his wife, Gu Kailai, is a suspect in the murder of the mysterious upper-class British expatriate and fixer Neil Heywood, a character who seems to have wandered straight out of a Graham Greene novel. The whole affair is causing major embarrassment to the ruling class in China for the way it brings into the open the shady machinations and rich deals that are a regular part of life for Communist mandarins. While Bo Xilai’s fall is being used to spread the message that no one is above the law, in fact no one knows exactly what led to his downfall; there is widespread suspicion it was not the result of his crimes per se, whatever they may have been, but rather of a murky behind-the-scenes power struggle whose features can be glimpsed only dimly by outsiders.
The second news item of note is this standoff in disputed waters of the South China Sea between a Philippine Navy gunboat and two Chinese “surveillance” ships. It seems that the Philippine warship had arrived to discover Chinese fishing vessels operating in waters claimed by Manila. Filipino sailors found plenty of illegally harvested clams, corals and other sea treasures aboard the ships before being blocked from further access by the arrival of two Chinese “surveillance” ships–presumably unmarked vessels belonging to the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
Why are these two news items so important? Because both cast doubts about whether China’s rise is as inevitable as the pundits have it.