China will have a major leadership change soon when the current leaders, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, bow out. In the post-Mao era, Chinese leadership change and power transition have become institutionalized and more predictable. That's until the somewhat unexpected Bo Xilai affair. Although the sacking of the Chongqing leader -- in the wake of a murder investigation that implicated him and his wife -- revealed the startling degree of widespread corruption and abuse of power among high-ranking leaders, it also exposed the intense struggle among various ideologies of China's leaders and intellectual elites.
This is somewhat unprecedented. After three decades of reforms, China's social economic landscape has been transformed. Short-term and long-term problems and challenges abound. While addressing such problems as inflation, the asset bubble, corruption and increasingly daring expressions of public discontent, China's leaders and intellectual elites are also searching for long-term legitimacy.
The challenge has become more pressing, as Chinese society gets wealthier and more restless after three decades of rapid economic and social change. China is in urgent need of a soul, a set of dominant ideas, as the efficacy of the Chinese Communist Party's official ideology -- emphasizing "harmonious society" and "scientific development" -- diminishes.
Despite the Party's calls to "speak with one voice," dissenting ideas and differences are being voiced and heard. Unlike the simple dichotomy of reformers and conservatives during the 1980s and early 1990s, today's sets of views on China's problems and its future have become more sophisticated and complex.
The increasingly intense debate now appears to have three strands: the neoliberal reformers who seek to liberalize the economic and political arenas and reverse the recent expansion of the state; the neo-Maoists who argue for strengthening the state and breaking what they see as a "state capitalist" alliance between the rich and the powerful; and the neo-Confucian traditionalists who bemoan the loss of a moral compass in a modernizing society and want to rekindle China's soft power in the world.
Dominating the debates and ideological clashes are the neoliberals and the neo-Maoists who occupy the leadership, while neo-Confucians, popular as they may be among some common folk and patriotic youths, have yet to find their strong advocates among top leaders.
In a symbolic example of neo-Confucians' inability to gain ground, a giant Confucius statue was removed last year some 100 days after it was unveiled in front of the newly reopened National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square. The statue's appearance in such a prominent location caused an uproar among neoliberals, neo-Maoists and the intellectual elite.
In the competition for dominant ideas, Confucius -- whose school of thought has been touted as a call for Pax Cina ("Chinese peace") -- lost in the gigantic square that is bookended by Mao's iconic portrait and his mausoleum. (The statue now resides in the museum's sculpture garden, ostensibly for esthetic reconsiderations.)
The implications of this ideological debate are enormous and will likely determine the future of China.
The neo-liberals hold the free market and democracy to be universally applicable and deny the uniqueness of the Chinese experience. Their power base is Guangdong Province, where market reforms first served as a pilot test for the nation three decades ago. The provincial Party Secretary, Wang Yang, tipped for promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee, is widely regarded as a daring leader, willing to promote changes based on the market and open society principles.