China’s Communist Party has vowed to step up its efforts to tackle corruption and promote transparency in the wake of the scandal surrounding the fallen Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai.
The promise came as the country’s political elite gathered in Beijing for the once-in-a-decade leadership transition which begins tomorrow.
“Problems involving Bo Xilai and others are serious corruption cases among our senior cadres. The lessons learnt have been extremely profound,” Cai Mingzhao, spokesman for the 18th Communist Party Congress, said in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square, on the eve of the crucial meeting.
Beijing is in security lockdown for the congress, with rights groups claiming that dissidents have been detained or told to keep a low profile ahead of the meeting. Access to the internet has slowed to a crawl as the system of online controls – the so-called “Great Firewall of China” – kicks in. It is also affecting virtual private networks that allow users to bypass internet filters.
Bo Xilai, formerly a strong prospect for inclusion on China’s all-powerful Politburo, has cast a shadow over events. Mr Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, and his former police chief and protégé, Wang Lijun, have both been convicted over the scandal that followed the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood – formerly a close associate of the Bo family – almost a year ago.
“No matter who they are and how high their position, they must be prosecuted without fail. We will further step up our efforts to ensure power be exercised in the sunshine, and to eliminate the soil where corruption grows,” said Mr Cai.
After its most serious political crisis for many years, the Communist elite officially expelled Mr Bo from the party in the run-up to the congress, and stripped him of his parliamentary privilege, paving the way for prosecution over a series of criminal charges of corruption.
Ho-fung Hung, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, believes the Bo scandal could yet have more ramifications for party chiefs.
“As there are still sympathisers of Bo Xilai at the top of the party who did not agree with the harsh handling of Bo. The Bo saga did leave a scar and a source of rivalry within the leadership that might bite again any time in the future,” said Professor Hung.
The national party congresses are held once every five years. This year’s meeting will herald a transition to a fifth generation of top party elite led by the vice-president, Xi Jinping. It must also deal with the slowing economy and calls for reform of China’s state-owned firms.
In addition to selecting members of leading party bodies, the 2,270 delegates will pore over the party’s achievements of the past five years. They will also debate revisions to the party constitution. Mr Cai also offered cautiously worded signals that some reform of China’s opaque political system may be on the agenda.
“Political and structural reform is an important part of our overall reform and opening up. We will expand the people’s orderly participation in government – we will expand socialist democracy,” he said, promising more “intra-party democracy” within the ranks of the 78-member organisation.
However, Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Centre, expects little to change initially, because of the months of faction fighting and power-grabbing ahead, leaving little time for policy discussion.
“As they settle down, then we’ll get some idea. They might be able to offer surprises in terms of presentation and the way they talk to the world. But on solid policy, I can’t see anything major on the horizon,” he said.