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Future of China economy will force political reform

The ouster of a prominent Communist Party member, Bo Xilai, hints at this year's power struggle to define political reforms needed to avoid big problems for the Chinese economy.

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Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai looks as he attends the National People's Congress this week. China's Communist Party sidelined Bo, a powerful, charismatic politician March 15.

Andy Wong/AP Photo

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The world’s two largest economies, the United States and China, will go through leadership changes in late 2012. One will be democratic while the other, well, barely so. In China, only elite Communists decide who can fill the top nine posts of the ruling party’s supreme authority.

Yet of the two contests, which one will end up being seen in 10 years as the most historic?

Probably China’s. By that time, its economy may surpass that of the US, but more than that, the party will likely be forced to take wrenching and overdue political reforms.

After 30 years of pell-mell and unequal growth, many Chinese leaders admit it is time for reform. But of what kind? This week, a party struggle erupted over that question in what amounted to the Chinese equivalent of an American-style campaign brawl.

A top contender for the Politburo’s standing committee, Bo Xilai, was fired as party chief in the city of Chongqing. Such a slap down of a prominent party man and the son of a hero of the 1949 revolution hasn’t been seen in more than a decade. The move shatters the myth that the party can achieve harmonious transitions.

In his actions as “mayor” of a megalopolis, Mr. Bo stood for taking China back to Mao-era state control of the economy and people’s lives. His removal now bodes well for reformers. They seek not only further opening up of the economy to market forces but also tolerance for some political competition to vent public frustrations over problems such as income equality, corruption, and environmental damage. Or to quote a Chinese proverb, “If we don’t change our direction, we’re likely to end up where we’re headed.”

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