I think this point is well taken:
For 20 years, says Peking University politics professor Zhang Jian, “there has been a basic consensus in the party … that factional struggles should never rock the ship. But the way the scandal unfolded and was managed may signal the beginning of the loss of that consensus.”
For those of us who were around in 1989, one of the key factors that fueled the massive demonstrations that year was the split at the very top of the Chinese political hierarchy, a difference of opinion on how to deal with the students in Tiananmen Square. Roughly, Zhao Ziyang seemed to be seeking some sort of compromise, while Li Peng took a harder line. That difference ultimately led to the failure of the first deployment of military power in May and the eventual downfall of Zhao. Since then it appears that everyone at the top of the political order, especially the Politburo, learned the same lesson: if they let internal differences spill out into the public they could face another crisis of 1989 proportions.
Of course, it is hard to know what really goes on in the inner sanctums of Beijing. But Bo's sacking is certainly the most public display of high level political conflict that we have witnessed since 1989. It might be that the post-Tiananmen consensus is breaking down. China is a big place with various political actors looking to rise up the ladder of power and influence. Bo was infamous for trying to create a more populist path upwards. That has obviously failed. But others might now want to exploit the opening created by his fall (he was widely seen as a leading candidate for ascension to the Politiburo Standing Committee later this year) to promote themselves or their political allies. We could be in for a time of more overt, elite-level political tension.
It should be pointed out that the way this has been handled so far could suggest a kind of compromise. Zhang Dejiang is said to be from the same faction as Bo - the "princelings," sons of former high level cadres. The fix might be in for Zhang: he takes over this duty for now (running the massive conglomerate of Chongqing, for which he seems unsuited), and in return he will move up to the Standing Committee later this fall. And, by some calculations, that might preserve a certain balance among various factions at the top ("Pincelings" v. Communist Youth League veterans v. regional interests, etc.).
And yet... the abruptness and publicity of Bo's fall might open the door to new, more divisive, political tactics at the top. And if that happens, the lessons of 1989 may go by the wayside.
And still another possibility: Bo's fall is limited and the broader political damage thus contained. Thus far, he has lost his leadership positions in Chongqing. He is still a member of the Politburo. Although it seems less likely now that he will be promoted to the highest leadership level of the Standing Committee, it may be the case that he does not fall any further politically. Maybe he remains on the Politburo and gains some other sort of position, not as prominent as the leader of Chongqing, but neither as low as some prefecture in Qinghai. Is the Chairmanship of the symbolically important but politically impotent CPPCC in his future? Stay tuned.
Chinese politics, especially at the elite level, has been a rather staid and stodgy affair, at least since 1989. Bo's fall has blown up the usually carefully controlled movements of the top leadership. Whatever happens, it is safe to say that working out the succession of the Standing Committee will be more time- and attention-consuming for the denizens of Zhongnanhai than we might have thought a few months ago.
It could be a time when China's top leaders return to reading Han Feizi, who warned:
The only reason the ministers do not assassinate their sovereign is that their parties and cliques are not strong enough. (40)
It is hazardous for the ruler of men to trust others, for he who trusts others will be controlled by others. (84)