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Chinese coup watching

Last week, controversial politician Bo Xilai, whose relatively open campaigning for a seat on China's top ruling council shocked China watchers (and possibly his elite peers, as well), was removed from his post as Chongqing's party secretary. He hasn't been seen since. Rumors of a coup, possibly coordinated by Bo's apparent ally Zhou Yongkang, are in the air.

Western media has extensively covered the political turmoil: Bloomberg reported on how coup rumors helped spark a jump in credit-default swaps for Chinese government bonds; the Wall Street Journal opinion page called Chinese leadership transitions an "invitation, sooner or later, for tanks in the streets." The Financial Times saw the removal of Bo, combined with Premier Wen Jiabao's strident remarks at a press conference hours before Bo's removal as a sign the party was moving to liberalize its stance on the Tiananmen square protests of 1989. That Bo staged a coup is extremely unlikely, but until more information comes to light, we can only speculate on what happened.

Reading official Chinese media response about Bo makes it easy to forget how much Chinese care about politics. The one sentence mention in Xinhua, China's official news agency, merely says that Bo is gone and another official, Zhang Dejiang, is replacing him.  But the Chinese-language Internet is aflame with debate over what happened to Bo and what it means for Chinese political stability.

Mainland media sites have begun to strongly censor discussion of Bo Xilai and entirely unsubstantiated rumors of gunfire in downtown Beijing (an extremely rare occurance in Beijing). Chinese websites hosted overseas, free from censorship, offer a host of unsupported, un-provable commentary on what might have happened in the halls of power. Bannedbook.org, which provides free downloads of "illegal" Chinese books, posted a long explanation of tremors in the palace of Zhongnanhai, sourced to a "person with access to high level information in Beijing," of a power struggle between President Hu Jintao, who controls the military, and Zhou, who controls China's formidable domestic security apparatus. The Epoch Times, a news site affiliated with the Falun Gong spiritual movement (which banned in China), has published extensively in English and Chinese about the coup.

Speculation is rife: A Canadian Chinese news portal quoted Deutsche Welle quoting the Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily quoting a netizen that a group of citizens unfurled a banner in a main square in Chongqing that said "Party Secretary Bo, We Love and Esteem You," and were subsequently taken away by plain-clothes security forces. A controversial Peking University professor Kong Qingdong, a 73rd generation descendant of Confucius, said on his television show that removing Bo Xilai is similar to  "a counter-revolutionary coup;" one news site reported his show has since been suspended.

The Wall Street Journal reports that searching for Bo Xilai's name on Baidu, China's most popular search engine, lacks the standard censorship boilerplate ("according to relevant rules and regulations, a portion of the search results cannot be revealed") that accompanies searching for top leaders like Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao. A recent search for other Politburo members like Bo rival Wang Yang and People's Liberation Army top general Xu Caihou were similarly uncensored. Conversely, searching for Bo's name on Sina's popular Weibo micro-blogging service now doesn't return any relevant results. A censored fatal Ferrari crash on Sunday  night has raised suspicions of elite foul play, possibly realted to Bo. The bannedbook.org reports that Hu and Zhou "are currently fighting for control of China Central Television, Xinhua News (the official Communist Party wire service), and other ‘mouthpieces,'" which have been eerily but unsurprisingly taciturn about Bo Xilai.   

What we do know, as one message that bounced around Sina Weibo said, is that "something big happened in Beijing."

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Obama channels Bush on Iran

This is a guest post by Gabriel Max Scheinmann, a PhD student at Georgetown University and Visiting Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.


Hallmark it ain't. Yesterday President Obama gave his annual YouTube message marking Nowruz, the Persian new year. In a tradition begun by President Bush and used as an opportunity to directly address Iran, Obama's four Nowruz greetings have symbolized the evolutions in the Administration's policy, from a realpolitik message of respect and engagement with Iranian leaders to likening the regime to the Soviet Union and identification with the aspirations of freedom of the Iranian people. As Iranian behavior has become even more belligerent, Obama's approach towards Tehran has increasingly resembled that of the Bush Administration that he so derided.

In his inaugural Nowruz message in 2009, Obama endeavored to "speak clearly to Iran's leaders," praising the "shared hopes" and "common humanity that binds us together." He called for a "new beginning" in diplomatic relations, scrubbing any mention of the Iranian nuclear program or the regime's oppression of its own citizens. He announced his administration's commitment to diplomacy and foreswore the "sticks" approach of his predecessor, affirming that the "Islamic Republic of Iran" could yet "take its rightful place in the community of nations."

A year later, Obama somewhat shifted his message. The president again validated the legitimacy of the regime, by calling on the "leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran", and again offered to engage on "the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect." He even supported Iran's leaders' "right to peaceful nuclear energy." Following the regime's repression of domestic protests after the fraudulent June 2009 presidential election, the president for the first time referenced the distressing state of civil liberties within Iran. However Obama ended his message much in the same way he had a year earlier, repeating that "our offer of comprehensive diplomatic contacts and dialogue stands."

Obama's 2011 message marked a dramatic transformation in tone and substance. It's the first time he spoke directly to the Iranian people, dropping the niceties of the "Islamic Republic of Iran." Perhaps slightly intoxicated with blooming Arab revolts, the president directly linked the uprisings in Tahrir Square to those in Tehran's Azadi Square in June 2009, a couched call for Iranians to peacefully rise up and depose their own leaders. Asserting that the Iranian regime feared its own people, he concluded with a phrase that many Americans would associate with a certain Texan: "And though times may seem dark, I want you to know that I am with you."

Just yesterday, the president underwent his starkest transformation yet. Addressing solely the Iranian people and echoing Winston Churchill, he compared Iran to the Soviet Union by declaring that "because of the actions of the Iranian regime, an electronic curtain has fallen around Iran." Obama called for a dialogue between peoples, not governments, and, for the first time, mentioned U.S. sanctions against Iranian leaders. Once again, he highlighted the Iranian people, not the regime, as "the heirs to a great and ancient civilization" and declared that the regime's responsibility to respect the rights of its people was as important as its commitments to the international community regarding its nuclear program. Although the president still offered the Iranian government a way out, Obama elevated the importance of the freedom of the Iranian people to that of the Iranian nuclear program and explicitly compared the Iranian regime to the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union.

In three short years, Obama's Nowruz greetings, much like his Iran policy, have progressed back to those of the Bush Administration. By pledging himself to the Iranian people in their struggle against a Soviet-like regime, he borrowed President Bush's final Nowruz message: "the reformers inside Iran are brave people, they've got no better friend than George W. Bush, and I ask for God's blessings on them on their very important work."