Bret Stephens is one of the most provocative columnists for The Wall Street Journal. Like me, he also sees more than meets the eye:
But a simple murder mystery implicating a senior provincial official should not be enough to shake the foundations of a state as accustomed to violence as China. It should not set rumors flying of a palace coup. It should not prompt urgent warnings from outgoing premier Wen Jiabao of the threat of another Cultural Revolution. It should not lead to an "anti-corruption" campaign that has all the trappings of a factional struggle.
Above all, it should not provoke a highly public re-education campaign within the People's Liberation Army to instruct the ranks on Mr. Bo's "wrong thinking" and secure their fealty to the Communist Party, thereby calling attention to just how attenuated that fealty may have become of late.
Yet Mr. Bo's abrupt downfall caused all of this, and then some. Why?
Perhaps this is all related to institutions and what I’ve called in class: “low tech”:
But even then the scandal wouldn't resonate among Chinese if it were an isolated case. In reality it's the norm.
All this suggests that the Chinese aren't politically quiescent. They're furious. And their leaders—otherwise busy jockeying and horse-trading for position in the next government—need to figure out how they can allay that fury without also whetting it.
In the case of Mr. Bo and his wife, the regime will probably manage it: Show trials are, after all, a Communist specialty. …
But patterns of authoritarian behavior—particularly nepotism, corruption and rent-seeking—are hard to put down in the absence of the accountability mechanisms China so notably lacks: a vigorous free media, periodic elections, economic competition, a bias toward transparency, the rule of law. Instead, the only mechanism the regime has is the purge. It may work in the short-term …
Meantime, China's economy is slowing as income inequality grows—historically an explosive combination. … Wealthy Chinese are leaving the country in growing numbers, a de facto vote of no-confidence in an economy whose prospects are supposedly limitless.
Read the whole thing, entitled “The China Myth Unravels” in the April 17 issue of The Wall Street Journal.
Cross-posted from SUU Macroblog, which is required reading for my macroeconomics classes.