The HBO series Game of Thrones returns for a second season this month. The show, which could be described as either “Soft Core Porn Lord of the Rings,” or “Harry Potter for Middle-Aged White Dudes,” is set in a fantasy realm loosely modeled after medieval Europe with a plot that is equally loosely based on the history of the War of the Roses.
Given that the entire series revolves around a series of bloody power struggles in which amoral individuals quickly kill off the few characters with integrity before then turning on each other in a highly stylized circle jerk of naked ambition, I thought the show would make a useful guide to 2012 and the current leadership transition in China, a transition which is not going quite as smoothly as the Party leadership perhaps hoped it would.
So, with that…the Game of Thrones Guide to the 2012 Transition, Part 2. Part 1 can be found here.
(Yes. There are all kinds of spoilers but I figure if you’ve made it this far then you’ve already seen the show.)
What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger.
Writing in the Analects blog yesterday, Beijing correspondent James Miles argued that even though Bo Xilai might be down, he was far from out and that the erstwhile Chongqing Party Secretary remains popular, even going so far as to compare Bo to Hu Yaobang. Maybe. But there’s some evidence that Bo is not as popular with his base as many believe/fear. Also, Bo Xilai is not Hu Yaobang just as Justin Bieber is not, say, Sam Cooke. But the idea that the reanimated political corpse of Bo someday rising again to cause problems for the Party is not outside the realm of possibility. The thing about preventing an infestation of the undead, as I now know from watching Game of Thrones, is that eliminating your enemies is not enough, you must also burn their corpses to ash. Given that the CCP has some experience on this front, I would not want to bet on leniency when and if Bo ever goes to ‘trial.’
Eddard Stark: The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.
Bo’s initial mistake: entrusting his Chongqing crackdown to an underling. On one hand you can’t blame the guy for not wanting to personally get his hands bloody, but whenever you put that kind of power in the hands of a subordinate you invariably face the possibility of the whole plan blowing up in your face. Option A is your henchman is incompetent. Option B is that he is too good at his job and starts gunning for yours. Either way you’re probably going to have to eventually kill the bastard. This is why Ned Stark wanted no part of being Robert’s “Hand.” Sour cream has a longer shelf-life than henchmen and “Closest Comrades at Arms” in these situations.
Tyrion Lannister: I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples, bastards and broken things.
One of the weirder stories floating around last week involved a Ferrari which crashed on Sunday morning. Anybody who has seen these douchebags racing around Sanlitun in the small hours after the clubs close knew it was only a matter of time, but what made this particular Ferrari the subject of so much online speculation was the cone of silence that descended over the circumstances of the crash and the driver. The most persistent whispers – albeit ones fueled in part by overseas websites belonging to a certain banned cult – is that the car was driven by the illegitimate son of Jia Qinglin. Jia’s been on television a lot these days and last night was shown practically removing the arm of a visiting KMT functionary in an overly enthusiastic man-hug, so either the rumors are untrue or Jia is slowly coming unhinged while being filmed for the nightly news broadcast. Either way of course, the fact that the rumors spread so rapidly in absence of proof, a common theme this past week, is suggestive of how primed people are to believe these stories. Schadenfreude is an ugly thing, but people can see the children of China’s 1% living large in the capital and the growing sense of resentment is at least…understandable.
Robin Arryn: Mom make the little man fly now?
Tyrion Lannister: Not this little man, this little man is going home.
Zhou Yongkang was on the nightly news broadcast for Friday looking happy and relaxed. Either the rumors of his imminent demise are untrue (most likely), he’s a great actor (less likely), or he hasn’t received the email yet (not impossible). In any case, looks like the Zhou deathwatch will have to continue into the coming week. I’d say with each passing day it’s looking more likely that Zhou and Hu, if the stories of their tiff had any validity in the first place, have since kissed and made up.
Tywin Lannister: [speaking to Jaime] You’re blessed with abilities that few men possess. You’re blessed to belong to the most powerful family in the Kingdoms, and you’re still blessed with youth. And what have you done with these blessings? You’ve served as a glorified bodyguard for two kings, one a madman, the other a drunk. The future of our family will be determined in these next few months. We could establish a dynasty that will last a thousand years…or we could collapse into nothing, as the Targaryens did. I need you to become the man you were always meant to be. Not next year, not tomorrow…now.
Does anybody else imagine a scene with Hu Jintao calling Xi Jinping into his study at 2:00 in the morning and giving him a version of this speech? There’s no doubt Xi and Li have their work cut out for them. Look, anybody who has ever played team sports can tell you that winning solves a lot of problems in the locker room. Not to mix analogies too much, but check out at the Red Sox over the last decade. When they were winning championships and making the playoffs every year nobody seemed to care that players were taking shots of whiskey before big games and generally behaving like overgrown frat boys. But when the team tanked the last two months of the 2011 season all the shit which had been going for years suddenly became a problem. Players started turning on each other. The owners turned on the manager and the whole organization became a toxic nest of lies and recriminations ultimately resulting in ownership cleaning house.
What does this have to do with Game of Thrones, never mind Chinese politics?
I’m neither a China ‘bear’ or a China ‘bull,’ I still think it can go either way, but this new administration is going to be tested in ways that neither Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin ever were. First of all, eventually the economy is going to slow down. Hard. Soft. Whatever. How that landing is managed is going to be absolutely critical to the Party’s ability to govern. That doesn’t mean managing the last few years has been easy, but the benefits of economic development have benefited enough people, and enough of the right people, that the Party receives — and possibly deserves — the benefit of the doubt for a lot of unresolved issues. The test, and it’s likely to come within the next ten years, is whether the Party can also maintain harmony and social stability when that sense of continued prosperity fades. This is not the same as saying if the economy declines then the Party automatically goes, which is obviously a facile argument that ignores the adaptability of the Party in dealing with changing circumstances, but Xi Jinping and the incoming leadership will be forced to make some hard choices. Xi Jinping seems like a very able guy, tough and willing to listen to criticism and advice from those around him, but it may not come down just to managerial competence but rather the ability to demonstrate political courage under tough circumstances.
Eddard Stark: Who do you serve?
Varys: I serve the realm. Someone must.
It’s not easy to be the court eunuch. Not the Meng Jianzhu lacks physical balls, but once Zhou Yongkang finally is put to pasture/dumped in a river Meng will be last man standing from the Jiang Zemin patronage network. He’s likely to be in the Nine, but you have to think that every time Old Panda Eyes gets heartburn Meng starts to update his resume. Even as odd man out though, anyone holding the public security brief must resist the powerful temptation to engage in all kinds of shenanigans, as we’ve since learned from the Chongqing experience this past month. Not sure if Meng is that kind of guy, but I wouldn’t count on Chinese society getting any less rambunctious in the next decade and if anything Meng is going to have his hands full enough putting out fires without playing palace intrigue.
Tyrion: What do you want from me, Bronn? Gold? Women? Golden women? Stick with me and you’ll have them all.
Bronn: Alright, but don’t expect me to call upon your lordship whenever you take a shit. I’m not your toady, and I’m not your friend.
Tyrion: Where I would treasure your friendship, I’m mainly interested in your facility with murder. And if the day ever comes where you’re tempted to sell me out, remember this: Whatever the price, I’ll beat it. I like living.
Another great exchange in the ongoing odd-couple Tyrion/Bronn bromance. It’s nice they’ve worked out the basic parameters of their relationship in such a clear manner. I wish the same could be said for the PLA and the CCP leadership.
Richard McGregor argues in his book The Party, that one of Hu Jintao’s early challenges as leader was developing a working relationship with the military. Lacking real military experience and without close ties with the PLA brass, Hu faced a problem not dissimilar to that of Bill Clinton in his first term trying to earn the respect of his commanders despite never having served. Xi Jinping benefits to some extent from being his father’s son, but that might only go so far and there are indications that the military is growing increasingly fractious and restless and prone to act in its own (especially fiduciary) interests when necessary. Statements in the Chinese press by both civilian and military leaders reaffirming Party control over the PLA have become so frequent over the past few months that the cumulative effect is hardly reassuring. For now, the Party continues to feed the beast by increasing defense spending. Should Hu Jintao, as expected, hold on to his role as head of the Party’s Central Military Commission for a couple more years this might ease the transition but it’s certainly a situation that bears watching.
Tyrion Lannister: Ferocious? Last night a Moon Brother stabbed a Stone Crow over a sausage. Three Stone Crows seized the Moon Brother and opened his throat. Bronn managed to keep Shagga from chopping off the dead man’s cock, which was fortunate, but even still Ulf is demanding blood money, which Shagga and Gunter refuse to pay.
Tywin Lannister: When soldiers lack discipline, the fault lies with their commander.
Pity those central government organs responsible for doing anything that requires the cooperation of local officials. Tensions between the center and the local in Chinese politics date back to when Confucius was still wearing split-bottom pants, but there are signs that recently the problem has grown particularly acute as the central government tries to get a handle on local government finances. It won’t be easy. The Yongzheng Emperor once became so exasperated with the extent of graft by local officials that he gave everybody a huge raise and told them to steal less. I’ll let you guess how well that worked out. The Party right now is trying to get several thousand of its most venal and corrupt administrators to stop lining their own pockets because…well, because it’s not nice to steal things. Li Yuanchao might be the guy who steps in and takes over from He Guoqiang as chief hatchet man for the Party/Hu Jintao, but like the public security brief this is an area where things are only going to get more complex during the next administration and whoever gets the job could learn a thing or two from Tyrion on barbarian management.
Eddard: “What you suggest is treason.”
Littlefinger: “Only if we lose.”
Such a great scene. Ned asks Tommy Carcetti to arrange for the palace guard to back his play against the new boy king and his wicked mother/aunt. You just know it’s going to end badly and as Omar might say, “If you come at the king, you best not miss.”
All this week rumors of palace intrigue and a possible coup have been floating around most of them involving a possible split among the Standing Nine and the ouster of Zhou Yongkang. Frankly, I don’t see it happening, but once again the fact that so many people are ready to believe is suggestive in itself. There are splits in the leadership for sure but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to take the fight out into the street. That said, it’s worth mentioning the Party doesn’t make it any easier on itself by keeping the public in the grey about what the hell is going on with the government.
“Is this meant to be your shield, my lord? A piece of paper?”
The climactic throne room scene were Ned Stark, loyalist to the old regime, confronts King Joffrey and his mother. All Ned had to do was kneel, swear fealty, act contrite and then all would be forgiven. How hard is that shit? But no, some people learn these things the hard way and Ned instead thought it a better idea to denounce the king as a bastard princeling. Nice. Of course he was counting on the palace guard siding with him and when that failed to happen…well Ned was proper and truly fucked.
It seems that Bo Xilai had a similar opportunity at his annual NPC press conference. He could have been contrite, humble, and probably lived to fight another day. Instead, he denounced his enemies and counted on the support of his buddy Hu Jintao…who promptly whipped a knife out.
Bo’s performance at the press conference pissed off so many people that within 72-hours he was done. He wasn’t likely to stick around long anyway, but the non-apology apology he used to ‘save himself’ would have made Mike Daisey blush. It remains to be seen if, unlike Ned, Bo will be allowed to keep his head.
Winter is coming…