The Chinese Communist Party's decision last week to suspend Bo Xilai -- the "princeling" scion of one of the People's Republic's revolutionary founding fathers -- from the Politburo amounts to the most serious political earthquake to hit China's top leadership in decades. Beijing's simultaneous announcement that it has detained Bo's wife on "suspicion of intentional homicide" in the death of the Briton Neil Heywood also violates the unwritten code -- put in place following the tumult and incessant purges of the Cultural Revolution -- that when it comes to politics, the families of the country's top leadership are off-limits.

The political aftershocks will continue for some time. The crimes that Bo and his inner circle are accused of are reprehensible and, if true, merit severe punishment. Bo's massive wealth -- allegedly attained through intimidation and corrupt dealings -- and the ease with which his wife apparently decided to eliminate Mr. Heywood, when they fell out over unspecified "economic interests," underscore the couple's seeming ruthlessness. But it also is the case, however, that the leadership's move against Bo is entirely political. The torrent of salacious details spewing out in the official media concerning Bo and his associates' misdeeds far exceeds the amount of detail released about similar cases in the past, demonstrating the leadership's resolve to end Bo's career. Only the final act of Bo's demise remains unwritten, and it is essential to understand the broader implications, and possible unintended consequences, of his fall.

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At first glance, it would appear that Bo's ouster clears the way for a smooth succession this fall when the top positions in the Chinese Communist Party turn over, a process that happens roughly every decade. To some in the senior leadership, Bo meant instability; his populism, arrogance, and flagrant public campaigning for advancement were uncomfortable reminders that the party is more diverse than the monochrome public façade that it works tirelessly to present. His calls for a fairer distribution of China's economic gains and his throwback "red culture" campaign, which evoked themes from the Maoist era, made him a kind of nail that stuck up in Chinese politics. In turn, the leadership had to hammer him down to underscore its ironclad commitment to consensus-oriented decision-making. 

But Bo's demise does not guarantee an easy transition. In fact, his implosion creates a vacuum in the race for the party's future, one that leaders within the regime will jockey to fill. President Hu Jintao and his Communist Youth League allies -- especially chief Bo rival and Guangdong provincial party boss Wang Yang -- arguably have the momentum. But Hu rarely demonstrates the necessary grit to decisively capitalize on such opportunities (remember the 2006 purge of Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu). Short of an uncharacteristic display of boldness from Hu, that leaves the field to others, and makes the outcome more uncertain.

In fact, this entire episode undercuts the notion that the hyper-consensus-driven leadership style of President Hu has been a net positive for China's development. Moreover, it belies the idea that the strong-state model his cautious leadership has cultivated increases Beijing's ability to manage the Middle Kingdom's resurgence as a global power.

Setting aside the 2008 unrest in Tibet and the 2009 rioting in Xinjiang, it is fair to say the leadership's consensus approach has ensured a modicum of stability during a time of rapid growth and transformation. However, it has also spawned lowest common denominator policy outcomes and numerous instances in which, even on matters of substantial domestic or geostrategic importance, the leadership has either decided not to decide or has issued largely empty public missives reminding errant constituencies of the consensus orthodoxy.

Consider Hu's management of relations with the United States. It is difficult to point to any cases in which Hu, in contrast to his predecessors, has been willing to take personal political risks solely to advance ties with Washington. Instead, on persistent sticking points such as North Korea and normalizing military-to-military ties with the Pentagon, he seemingly has been boxed in by more conservative forces who argue that Washington is pursuing a containment strategy bent on stifling China's rise. Hu's failure, despite nearly a decade at the top, to control the key levers of power has only served to amplify these voices. The result is mutual frustration between Beijing and Washington, which deepens strategic distrust.

By contrast, most observers have described Vice President and heir apparent Xi Jinping as a self-assured and thoughtful leader. However, the Bo affair could force Xi to move more cautiously and to continually demonstrate his unwavering support for the leadership's collective decision to expel Bo, rather than shaping the themes of his administration and advancing his preparations to take power. And across the top leadership there is a pervasive fear that the Bo affair could rekindle complaints among the Chinese public that the princelings unfairly exploit their positions, status, and influence within the system for personal gain, similar to those who helped spark the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. Such distractions risk extending Xi's timeline for consolidating power and could frustrate him as he tries to cobble together a solid ruling coalition of supporters in the new Politburo.

So while Bo's particular brand of charisma may have been a bridge too far, this is when China needs dynamic leadership most. As highlighted in a February World Bank study, China may well be facing another key inflection point and will require a new wave of economic reforms, such as commercializing the banking sector and redefining the state's role in the economy, or risk increasing the likelihood of a hard landing. But it will take an empowered and proactive new leadership to implement such an agenda over the strong resistance of powerful vested interests such as sprawling state firms and entrenched local officials.

Instead, what Beijing has, and what is on display in the Bo case, is a stovepiped bureaucracy that strains to present a unified face to its people and the world. The problem is that an effective remedy would involve substantial structural changes to a system in which key players, such as the Chinese military, seek to advance their parochial interests by exploiting the gaps that pervade the current Leninist structure and which breed poor policy coordination. Extensive corruption also has filled the vacuum left by the demise of ideology, and the leadership has fostered a top-down decision-making culture that discourages competing ideas and punishes any public hint of disagreement within the party's senior ranks.

But the best thing the United States and other foreign countries can do is watch from the sidelines. Above all, outsiders must avoid even the appearance of seeking to meddle in the succession. In many ways, there is no taking advantage of Bo's ouster. The impetus for his fall -- his former security chief's bungled attempt to seek refuge in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu -- along with the United Kingdom's involvement, owing to the alleged murder of one of its citizens, already provide more than ample grist for the forces in the leadership and in Chinese society eager to see the hand of "hostile foreign forces" in Bo's dismissal.

Bo's removal does not open the door to substantial reform in the near term. In fact, eager to cauterize the wound of Bo's expulsion, the leadership sent an unambiguous signal in an authoritative commentary in the party's flagship newspaper last week, reminding cadres to "stick to the overall work principle of seeking progress while maintaining stability" and urging them to "focus their attention on economic and social development." It was hardly a clarion call for a new reformist tide. No, Beijing will have to reconcile its consensus leadership style with the costs that that style is bringing on the country.


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  • CHRISTOPHER K. JOHNSON holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is a former senior China analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • More By Christopher K. Johnson