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China's autumn of woes

Publication Date : 03-10-2012


Daylight hours are getting shorter, the temperature is fast dipping and the leaves are shedding their green hue for shades of yellow, red and orange. Autumn, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, has arrived.

But while the season of change may symbolise melancholy in many lands, it is most commonly associated with distress here in China.

Such pessimism has been neatly summed up in a proverb since ancient times. The Chinese call it duo shi zhi qiu, or trouble in autumn.

It was believed to have been coined during the Song Dynasty between the 10th and 13th centuries, a nod to the many wars waged in China during the season.

But judging by the recent turbulence which the country has undergone, modernity has not afforded China a break from its discomfort with the third season.

This autumn, China is feeling the wisdom and foresight of its ancients.

Much of it has centred on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Even by its dramatic standards, which have seen coups, purges and bloodshed bookmark its 91-year history, the recent tumult has been sensational.

It is a near-perfect constellation of trouble. A murder, a car crash, disappearance, corruption, trials, protests and a major leadership change fraught with eclipses.

With the date for the transition now fixed to start on November 8, the party must be wishing that the season would be more sparing with its unpleasant surprises in the next five weeks.

It could be tough. Much of autumn's woes hang in the arid air, still unresolved.

The biggest and prickliest concerns, of course, former Chongqing leader Bo Xilai, a seemingly never-ending scandal which started in spring, simmered over summer and continues to surprise now.

Nearly eight months after his top aide Wang Lijun dashed into a United States consulate for asylum on February 6, commanding global attention for the incident, the case is still not closed.

While Bo has now been expelled from the CCP and is to be charged in court for a litany of offences, including covering up his wife Gu Kailai's murder of a Briton, the scandal is not over until he is sentenced.

Many observers believe the trial could begin in the coming weeks, wiping the slate clean before the party congress, a quinquennial event in China's modern political calendar.

But unless Bo is willing to accept his verdict obediently like Wang and Gu, an early trial could toss up more dirt and controversy before the congress.

As Singapore's East Asian Institute analyst Chen Gang said, "Given Bo's strong personality and influence, he may not cooperate. If the trial goes wrong, it will dent the party's image".

There are other lingering troubles for the CCP.

The sudden demotion of President Hu Jintao's right-hand man Ling Jihua last month has sparked rampant talk that it was because of the involvement of Ling's son in a fatal Ferrari crash.

Photos of the horrific incident were quickly deleted online in March and searches blocked.

It prompted much speculation that the car was driven by the offspring of a senior official, although it is unclear if Ling Gu, the son, survived the accident.

The older Ling, who runs the powerful General Office, the nerve centre of the CCP, tried to cover up the crash, a well-placed source told The Straits Times.

He was believed to have used bodyguards from the Central Guards Bureau, which protects top leaders, to try to obtain the incriminating evidence from Beijing security forces.

The abuse of power did not go down well with the leaders. Ling, who was once tipped to be promoted to the Politburo and made Beijing party boss, was shunted to head the less important United Front Department in the party.

It remains unclear how this scandal could hurt Hu, the long-time patron of Ling, in the run-up to the congress.

But powerful retired elders, like former president Jiang Zemin and vice-president Zeng Qinghong, are re-emerging in the public spotlight this autumn.

Their timely appearances, for opera and an old cadre event respectively, suggest that backroom tussles will be intense in the coming weeks.

Add to that the still unexplained fortnight disappearance of Vice-President and heir apparent Xi Jinping last month, and the longer nights of Beijing look set to drag even longer.

If the dispute between China and Japan over neighbouring isles still refuses to die down, or even intensifies, the season of trouble for China could become unbearable.

The country is badly in need of five weeks of peace and predictability.

As it crosses the autumnal equinox, when day and night are of equal length, and celebrates the Mid-Autumn Festival, a silent prayer for a quieter remainder of the season would be in order.


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