Voice

What we know and don't know about Bo

Let's face it, far more Americans associate the name "Bo" more with Barack Obama's dog than with Bo Xilai, the now-disgraced former Communist Party chief of Chongqing (my generation of Americans will, of course, forever associate Bo with this).  That might be about to change, however, because Bo is at the center of the most serious post-Tiananmen political scandal in China.  

To recap:  Bo was pushing hard for an appointment to the nine-person Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) Politburo -- the most powerful decision-making body in China.  He might very well have received it too, based on the combination of his "princeling" ties, his populist, Maoist-style campaigns and the flock of high party officials visiting Chongqing to see how he was doing it. 

Two months ago,  however, Bo's police chief Wang Lijun showed up at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu seeking asylum.  He left the consulate, but the reverberations haven't stopped.  First Bo disappeared from public view, then his "Jackie Kennedyesque" wife Gu Kailai was charged with the murder of British citizen Neil Haywood, and then Bo was formally put under investigation and stripped of all his party posts. 

So, what the hell happened?  Slowly, details are starting to trickle out about Bo's methods in Chongqing and exactly what led to his downfall.  In order, I'd suggest reading the following: 

1)  On Bo's methods in Chingqing, see this gripping Financial Times expose from March, followed by Malcolm Moore's dispatch in the Daily Telegraph

2)  See Reuters' Chris Buckley on what exactly triggered Wang's flight to Chengdu -- and then read this Cheng Li interview in NBR that throws some cold water on the stories coming out now.  . 

3)  On how U.S. officials handled Wang's request for asylum, check out the New York Times' Steven Lee Myers and Mark Landler's excellent reconstruction of events in Chengdu

4)  On what This All Means for China, read Minxin Pei, Max Fisher, Cheng Li, and Jonathan Fenby

5)  Finally, read John Garnault's excellent FP Long Read on whether a Bo-style scandal is about to break out in the People's Liberation Army. 

OK, now you know everything I know.  So what do I know about Bo?  Not much, except for four things: 

A)  For the past decade there was a lot of talk about how China had managed to routinize the authoritarian selection process.  The transfer of power from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao seemed seamless.  Well, say what you will about what's happening now, but it ain't seamless.

B)  I tend to agree with Minxin Pei (and disagree with Cheng Li) that Bo's arrest is not an example of the system working, but rather the system coming veeeerrrrry close to a catastrophic failure.  The fact China's official apparatus has clammed up after Bo's arrest is a clear sign that there's still a lot of infighting going on.  The notion that this will therefore lead to a real reform/anti-corruption trend strikes me as based on hope more than reality (though see this previous post of mine as a hedge). 

C)  Despite the official no-comments, the fact that Chinese officials are now leaking like a seive to Western reporters is interesting, and suggests the ways in which a purge in this decade will not resemble pre-Tiananmen purges.  It's not that there will be more rumors and conspiracy theories now than thirty years ago -- it's that all this stuff will not be on the Internet -- which will force the CCP to respond more than it would like.

D)  Based on how things played out, the U.S. State Department deserves a tip of the cap for how it handled Wang's sojourn to Chengdu.  The fact that there were no press leaks until yesterday is good -- anything the U.S. government says publicly about this episode needlessly embarrasses and angers the Chinese government.  That said, given the current attitudes in Beijing about the United States, even the Times story is going to raise some hackles.  Indeed, given the current strife inside China, it would be easy to envision Beijing making life difficult for the United States elsewhere as a way of using nationalism to paper over elite divisions.

Am I missing anthing?  Oh, I'm missing plenty, and I strongly urge China-watchers to proffer their comments! 

Daniel W. Drezner

The United Nations is a long way away from the Cold War

After the latest demonstration of Syria thumbing its nose at the Annan plan, Walter Russell Mead decided to go on a rhetorical bender against the United Nations

The reality is that the UN today is less prestigious and influential than it was in the 1940s and 1950s. There used to be a time when General Assembly votes actually meant something. Newspapers used to report its resolutions on the front page. And the Security Council, on those rare occasions during the Cold War when it could actually agree on something, was seen as laying down the basic principles along which an issue would be resolved.

Now, this kind of rant is a rite of passage for a foreign policy pundit.  I mean, there's no way you make it into the Council on Foreign Relations -- or Twitter Fight Club -- without at least one good, solid bashing of UN fecklessness. 

That said, Mead's rant has this whiff of ... well, let's say erroneous assertion about it. Hayes Brown fisks Mead's blog post thoroughly and effectively, but I want to focus just on the above paragraph, because it makes such little sense.   

First of all, exactly when did General Assembly votes ever mean anything? The only time during Mead's halcyon Cold War days of the UN in which the General Assembly mattered was the "Zionism = racism" resolution in 1975.  I don't think making news because of an assinine statement really qualifies as "meaning something." The General Assembly was besotted with the New International Economic Order during the 1970s as well -- and, thankfully, these affirmations didn't amount to much either

Second, Mead is correct that during the Cold War, Security Council agreeement made the front pages -- but that because it was just so friggin' rare. The Security Council was essentially in a state of permanent deadlock from the Korean War to the height of perestroika. Economic sanctions were approved a grand total of twice; the Security Council has imposed them juuuuust a wee bit more in recent years. 

Sanctions are for sissies, though -- what about the blue helmets? Well, if Wikipedia is correct, UN peacekeepers were dispatched on thirteen missions during the Cold War era.  Which happens to be exactly the same number of times UN peacekeepers have been approved since George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech -- a period that is only one-fourth as long as the Cold War. There are, by the way, 16 ongoing UN peacekeeping missions. I can bash aspects of the United Nations as well as the next commentator, but this is not an organization that even remotely resembles its Cold War state of decrepitude. 

Look, the effectiveness of the United Nations as an instrument of statecraft is entirely a function of the current state of great power politics. This means that it was close to useless during the Cold War, pretty damn useful during the heyday of U.S. unipolarity, and now somewhere in between with the growth of the BRICs. The United Nations is to the great powers as Michael Clayton was to his law firm

If great power gridlock grows, the United Nations will likely grow more dysfunctional. But we're a looooooooooong way from the Cold War. And Mead should know that.