THE DOWNFALL of the Chinese party baron Bo Xilai, who on Thursday was unceremoniously purged from his post in the Chongqing region, looks at first glance like good news for the cause of liberal reform. Mr. Bo, after all, had been whipping up popular support for a neo-Maoist “red revival” in his territory, staging public singings of old Communist standards and texting Mao’s maxims to Chongqing cellphones. His dismissal means he will not get the post on the country’s most powerful body, the nine-member standing committee, that he was aiming for during a leadership transition later this year.
Premier Wen Jiabao, who for several years has publicly aligned himself with the liberal cause, had an air of triumph when he appeared at a news conference Wednesday. Pronouncing that the Chongqing leadership should “reflect and learn from” the scandal that brought down Mr. Bo — which included the attempted defection of his deputy to a U.S. consulate — Mr. Wen pointedly warned that China risked “a tragedy like the Cultural Revolution.” He argued that the country “has come to a critical stage” in which “without successful political structural reform . . . new problems that have cropped up in China’s society will not be fundamentally resolved.”
It’s tempting to take this as evidence that proponents of free enterprise and greater democracy are ascendant as Mr. Wen and President Hu Jintao prepare to hand off power to a new generation led by Xi Jingping. But China’s opaque leadership struggles are not always what they seem to be. For example, was Mr. Bo really a Maoist? His son, a former student at Oxford and Harvard who reportedly drives a red Ferrari, hardly fits the profile of a Red Guard. Or was it Mr. Bo’s grandstanding appeals for popular support that offended the party elite? Mr. Wen’s own vision of democratic practice seems to involve considerably less public involvement; he speaks vaguely of a gradual extension of limited elections now held at the village level.
The results of the 10-day meeting of the National People’s Congress over which Mr. Wen presided were anything but encouraging. The legislature’s most notable act was the approval of a measure formally granting police the power to hold political suspects for up to six months in secret prisons without charge, in defiance of an unusual public campaign against the law by lawyers and human rights advocates. This will allow the regime to proceed with what has been a sweeping crackdown on pro-democracy activists in recent months, even as it takes steps to shut down debate on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.
Mr. Bo’s defeat does seem to be good news for proponents of restructuring state-owned companies, a reform that government planners have identified as essential to sustaining economic growth in the next two decades. But the pro-statist faction associated with the Chongqing leader hardly seems to have been vanquished. His successor, Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang, is an alumnus of Kim Il Sung University who is believed to hold similar views. Quite possibly the power struggle that surfaced in Chongqing may just be getting underway: Seven of those nine standing committee seats are up for grabs. Mr. Wen’s gloss notwithstanding, outside observers, like the Chinese people, are unlikely to learn what is happening, or what is at stake, until it is over.