Beijing's power play

Sinologist's delight: A good old-fashioned purge

Published October 4, 2006 9:41PM (EDT)

The dramatic downfall of Shanghai Party boss and Politburo member Chen Liangyu, on charges of corruption, has China political analysts buzzing. There hasn't been a good purge in ages! Like the Kremlinology of Cold War yore, it's a tough gig trying to figure out what's going on behind closed Chinese Communist Party doors. So when major public changes occur, the adrenaline starts flowing.

The party line on the party purge, so far, is that President Hu Jintao is solidifying his power over the last strongholds of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. But this struggle is about more than who holds ultimate authority in China. As Joseph Kahn writes in today's New York Times, this is also about the central government attempting to reassert control over local governments that have willfully flouted dictates from the top.

And that's where it gets interesting. A standard part of contemporary China analysis, ever since Hu Jintao came to power, is to note that, in terms of rhetoric, the central government has been very vocal about addressing such pressing problems as the growing inequality between rural and urban Chinese, environmental degradation, corruption and a host of other ills. But in terms of practical effect, the ability of the central government to impose its policies on the periphery has been negligible.

There's a lot not to like about Hu's consolidation of power: the severe crackdown on dissent, human rights activism, the Internet and the press, for starters. But it will be well worth watching to see if the current purge results in local governments that finally remember how to kowtow to Beijing, and whether that, in turn, leads to a China that is serious about ameliorating growing inequality and environmental havoc, and making a real change in the current pell-mell, grow-as-you-fast-as-you-can zeitgeist.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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