Chinese politician Bo Xilai is shown during a 2007 press conference on the… (Frederic J. Brown / AFP /…)
BEIJING — What is happening in China? The officially acknowledged or credibly confirmed facts of the Bo Xilai affair are worthy of a blockbuster political thriller. Its deeper causes, however, go to the heart of the weird, unprecedented system of Leninist capitalism that has emerged in China over the last 30 years. Its possible consequences for change in that system could do more to shape the 21st century world than anything happening in Washington, New Delhi or Brussels. Behind the walls of the Communist Party leadership compound, next to the old Forbidden City, the ghost of Hegel has somehow got mixed up with Robert Ludlum.
Like everybody I meet, I do not know what is actually going on inside those walls. Outside them, however, there's a clear pattern. Every conversation I have in Beijing turns sooner or later to Bo, Bo, Bo. How did his son, Bo Guagua, get into Oxford University? Was the mysteriously deceased British businessman Neil Heywood a spy? Was Madame Bo, a.k.a. Gu Kailai, having an affair with him?
Then people volunteer what they themselves have learned. For example, multiple sources agree that there was an armed standoff outside the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, where former Chongqing chief enforcer Wang Lijun had sought asylum, apparently fearing for his life and ready to dish the dirt on his former boss, Bo. Paramilitary forces sent by Bo from Chongqing to snatch him back to an unpleasant fate faced off against central security forces summoned, with U.S. help, from Beijing. Talk about fact outdoing fiction.
If, however, an ordinary Chinese netizen searches for the family name Bo on the popular microblogging site Sina Weibo, she or he finds this: "In accordance with relevant laws, rules and policies, the search results for Bo are not shown here." Official media are full of exhortations to national, social and ideological stability, under the wise and united leadership of the party. Those Bos were just two rotten apples in an otherwise healthy orchard. Now they will face the full and famously impartial rigor ofChina'srule of law.
Beside this lurid, titillating and — let's not forgot the poor Heywood family — also tragic and distressing conversation, there is a far more consequential one going on. The two are, however, connected. It is possible that the circumstances of Heywood's death would anyway have led to the fall of the rising political star Bo. What is certain, however, is that the affair has played out in the context of factional and ideological competition within the Chinese party-state-military power structures in the run-up to this year's leadership transition. Bo was a controversial candidate for the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee. What is even more certain is that his fall will affect the transition, in personalities and in policies.
So far, official propaganda has been careful to distinguish between the man and his "Chongqing model," with its crypto-Maoist slogans of "smash black" and "sing red" and its populist claim to provide welfare, housing and work for the masses. That's understandable given that so many party leaders, including future President Xi Jinping, were in Chongqing praising it not so long ago, and some of its social welfare components will probably remain part of the country's policy mix.
An optimistic view, however, is that the Bo affair will strengthen the hand of those — identified at the highest level with current Premier Wen Jiabao and future Premier Li Keqiang — who believe that China needs not red songs but further economic, legal and also political reforms. It needs reform for a host of reasons, from the slowing of economic growth, through inequality, rural-urban disparities and an aging population, all the way to the spread of high-level corruption (witness the Bo family's champagne-Maoist lifestyle), the need for innovation, and rising expectations among China's youth.
What I find so striking on this visit is that I hear such sentiments not just among liberal academics, free-market economists, think tankers, writers and students, but also in unexpected places, including the Communist Party's Central Party School and even the party-state television mouthpiece CCTV.
But don't bet on major reform actually coming through. The counter-forces of caution, consensus and vested interests are massive, both because of the way political families and clans combine political and economic power, as the Bos exemplified, and because former leaders such as Jiang Zemin (and soon Hu Jintao) will remain very influential behind the Bamboo Curtain. But the fallout from the affair will surely increase the pressure on the party leadership to do something decisive, both to restore its own tarnished reputation and to deliver more of what most Chinese might regard as progress.
If that were to happen (and it remains a very big if) — if the result of the death of an obscure British businessman were a better, more durably stable China, and therefore a safer world — it would be a stunning example of the law of unintended consequences.
Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University, a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the author, most recently, of "Facts Are Subversive."