By Tim Adamson Contributor April 30, 2012

Failure to address the scandal threatens the long-term viability of Communist Party control.

The murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, which triggered the downfall of one of China’s most powerful politicians, Bo Xilai, has raised significant questions over the long-term viability of China’s one-party rule.
When Bo’s wife, Gu Kalai, and Zhang Xiaojun, a family employee, were arrested on suspicion of the murder of Heywood on April 10, 2012 it precipitated the sacking of a political leader tipped for the country’s top political body, the Politburo Standing Committee. Already removed from his position as party secretary of the city of Chongqing last month pending investigation, he was summarily dismissed from his remaining key posts within the party.

Bo Xilai’s dismissal has provoked the party’s most damaging scandal since the removal of General Secretary Zhao Ziyang following the Tiananmen protests in 1989. Party officials and media outlets condemned Bo as a corrupt official fallen prey to the lurid attractions of power and wealth, portraying the government as the omnipotent cure. Amid calls for greater transparency and a wider crackdown on corruption, the affair has invoked suggestions of a wider ideological struggle among the elites. Failure to address these issues threatens the existence of the Communist Party as the sole governing body in China.

Heywood’s death on November 14, 2011 had originally been attributed to alcohol poisoning but later became the center of a murder investigation when the head of the Chongqing police force, Wang Lijun, sought refuge in the United States consulate in Chengdun on Februrary 7, 2012. Wang’s very public attempts at defection eventually led to a full investigation which saw Gu arrested. Heywood is reported to have been poisoned after threatening to reveal Gu’s plans to transfer significant sums of money overseas.

China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has pledged a full investigation and warned local governments that they must address corruption concerns or face penalties. The son of the prominent Communist Party member Bo Yibo, Bo’s removal has raised wider concerns over the actions of the so-called ‘Princelings’ and their access to seemingly unlimited power. The party now faces a dilemma as it approaches its leadership transition this fall. On one hand, uncovering the sinister details of the case risks public outcry at the leadership’s unbridled access to money and influence. Alternatively, failure to reveal the truth might lead the public to suspect Bo’s removal was the result of political expediency. Bo was unpopular with senior officials for his extravagant leadership and appeals to traditional Communist ideals. Modeling his leadership style on the principles of revered former leader Mao Zedong, Bo was feared and admired in almost equal measure. However, in an era of Chinese market liberalization, Confucius is now cast as a greater role model than Chairman Mao.

In the past, such a scandal might have escaped public attention at the hands of the party’s propaganda machine. But in today’s era of unprecedented media coverage, the government faces a clear decision: confront the mounting calls for political reform or risk popular revolt. The Arab Spring has emboldened repressed peoples and shocked despots worldwide. Bo’s demise, while far from escalating to a national crisis, should nevertheless serve as a wake-up call for China’s elites. The forthcoming leadership transfer offers the ideal opportunity to initiate widespread reforms which will better equip the government to deal with the political, economic, and social challenges it is set to embrace over the next ten years.

In the wake of Neil Heywood’s death, the Chinese Communist Party must address issues of transparency and accountability and resolve widespread corruption among its elites. Party leaders must be subjected to traditional modes of scrutiny expected of modern government officials; its leaders no longer able to accumulate vast power and influence at the expense of its citizens. This will further hasten the liberalization of the Chinese political and economic institutions and allow the party to better confront the many challenges it faces in the coming decades.

Tim Adamson is a Masters candidate at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. He previously worked in the European Parliament, Brussels, for a British Member of the European Parliament, and is currently employed in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Commerce.