NEW YORK -- These are interesting times in China. A senior Communist Party official, Bo Xilai, is brought down -- accused of offenses that include wire-tapping other party bosses, including President Hu Jintao -- while his wife is investigated for her alleged role in the possible murder of a British businessman. Meanwhile, a blind human-rights activist escapes from illegal house arrest, finds refuge in the United States' embassy in Beijing, and leaves the compound only after claims that Chinese authorities in his hometown had threatened his family.
Despite exhaustive press coverage of these events, it is remarkable how little we actually know. The British businessman's body was allegedly cremated before any autopsy was conducted. None of the lurid tales about Bo's wife have been proven. And the reasons for her husband's political disgrace remain murky, to say the least.
Things always tend to get interesting in China before a National People's Congress, where the Party's next leaders are anointed. Leadership change in most democracies is a relatively transparent process; it follows national elections. To be sure, even open democracies have their share of opaque jockeying and deal-making in what used to be called smoke-filled rooms. This is particularly true in East Asian countries, such as Japan.
But, in China, everything takes place out of sight. Because leaders cannot be ousted through elections, other means must be found to resolve political conflicts. Sometimes, that entails deliberate public spectacles.
The disgrace of Bo, Chongqing's former Party leader, certainly falls into this category. A handsome, charismatic populist born into the Party elite, Bo was known as a tough official, whose methods in fighting organized crime -- and others who got in his way -- were often unrestrained by law. Bo's ex-police chief, who is said to have done the dirty work, embarrassed the Party by fleeing to the US consulate in Chengdu in February, after he fell out with his boss. Despite Bo's nostalgia for Maoist rhetoric, he is conspicuously wealthy. His son's expensive lifestyle as a student at Oxford and Harvard has been described in lavish detail in the press.
In other words, Bo bore all the hallmarks of a gangster boss: corrupt, ruthless towards his enemies, contemptuous of the law and yet moralistic in his self-presentation. But the same could be said of most Party bosses in China. They all have more money than can be explained by their official pay. Most have children studying at expensive British or American universities. All behave as though they are above the laws that constrain normal citizens.
What was unusual about Bo was his open ambition. Chinese party bosses, like Japanese politicians -- or, indeed, Mafia dons -- are supposed to be discreet in their appetite for power. Bo behaved more like an American politician. He liked to throw his weight around in public. That was enough to annoy other party bosses.
Since factional rivalry inside the Party cannot be handled discreetly, some of Bo's colleagues felt that he had to go. The way that party bosses -- in China no less than in Japan -- get rid of irksome rivals is to bring them down through public scandals, leaked to an obedient press, which then fans the flames.
The appearance of a wicked wife in Chinese public scandals is a common phenomenon. When Mao Zedong purged his most senior Party boss, Liu Shaoqi, during the Cultural Revolution, Liu's wife was paraded through the streets wearing ping-pong balls around her neck as a symbol of wicked decadence and extravagance. After Mao himself died, his wife Jiang Qing was arrested and presented as a Chinese Lady Macbeth. It is possible that the murder accusations against Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, are part of such political theater.
In fact, Bo's fall from grace involves not only his wife, but his entire family. This, too, is a Chinese tradition. The family must take responsibility for the crimes of one of its members. When that individual falls, so must they. On the other hand, when he is riding high, they benefit, as was the case with many of Bo's relatives and his wife, whose businesses thrived while he was in power.
There has been a great deal of speculation about the consequences of Bo's fall, and of the daring escape of the human-rights activist, Chen Guangcheng, after 18 months of house arrest. Will his flight to the US embassy harden the attitudes of China's leaders? Will it force the US to get tougher on human rights in China? If so, what will follow from that?
Since Bo presented himself as a populist critic of modern Chinese capitalism and an authoritarian promoter of Maoist ethics, his natural enemies inside the Party leadership would seem to be the more “liberal” bosses, who favor free-market capitalism and perhaps even some political reforms. The current premier, Wen Jiabao, would seem to be this faction's leader. He has made speeches about the need for democratic reform and has been openly critical of Bo. Chen asked him to investigate abuses against him and his family.
So, could the fall of Bo lead to a more open society, less hostile to dissident voices? It is possible that Chinese Communists who favor more economic liberalism would also be more receptive to a more open society? But the opposite could also be true: The wider the disparities in wealth and the more people protest against economic inequality, the more the regime will crack down on dissidents.
Such repression is not meant to protect communism, let alone what little is left of Maoism. On the contrary, it is meant to protect the Chinese Communist Party's brand of capitalism. That may be why Bo had to be toppled and certainly why dissidents like Chen, as well as his family, have to suffer so much that refuge in a foreign embassy is their final, desperate option.
*Ian Buruma is professor of democracy and human rights at Bard College and the author of “Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.” © Project Syndicate 2012.