Imagine that an American intelligence agency organizes an “exercise,” as one occasionally does, on how to manage an unwanted but inescapable Washington role in a Chinese leadership struggle. Throw in the following scene-setting facts:
With the Chinese Communist Party confronting a decisive leadership transition, a provincial police chief takes refuge in a U.S. consulate and spills the beans on a corruption and murder story swirling around Bo Xilai, whose populist, Maoist campaign threatens the establishment.
Just a week before the visit to Washington of Vice-President Xi Jianping, who is in line to become paramount leader this autumn, President Obama takes sides. Although Bo’s forces are circling the consulate, the U.S. releases the police chief to Beijing’s leaders.
With that crisis solved and Chinese leaders indebted to Obama, a blind human rights activist dramatically escapes house arrest and takes refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. With Secretary Hillary Clinton arriving for a high-level Sino-U.S. summit, both sides enter crisis management mode.
It’s no wonder that the intellectual salons of Washington have grown a bit bored with the ongoing U.S. election campaign and have shifted their interest instead to Chinese domestic politics. The reasons are obvious: The details are juicier, the drama is more immediate and the historic stakes are considerably more significant.
That’s because any U.S. president, whether named Obama or Romney, will operate within a well-established constitutional framework and democratic habits. While the U.S. has managed 43 peaceful transitions of power over the past 223 years, Communist-led China has managed a smooth handoff only once since its 1949 revolution, and that was in 2002, when Deng Xiaoping engineered the rise of the current premier, Hu Jintao.
Former U.S. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft believes China has entered its most decisive domestic political period since the weeks preceding the government crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, which resulted in the arrest and purge of Deng Xiaoping’s presumptive heir, Zhao Ziyang, along with a large-scale removal of other officials sympathetic to the protesters. Tiananmen’s immediate aftermath strengthened the hand of hardliners, until Deng, with difficulty, reasserted himself and market reforms in 1992.
Former U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley regards the current split within the Chinese leadership to be the most severe since 1971. It was then that Defense Minister Lin Biao, in an apparent attempt to defect to the Soviet Union, died in a plane crash in Mongolia while trying to flee the country after a failed attempt to assassinate Mao Tse Tung. The Communist Party branded him a traitor posthumously.