It was just last month when Chinese Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai of the municipality of Chongqing, a mega-city with a population the size of Canada’s, was greeting Prime Minister Stephen Harper with pandas. Mere days ago, he was in the spotlight at the annual National People’s Congress, promoting and defending his policies. Yet, in a simple announcement by the central government, Mr. Bo was removed Thursday from all his posts in Chongqing, sending observers and pundits scrambling.
Mr. Bo’s stardom was drawn into question a few weeks ago, when the party secretary’s deputy and Chongqing’s much-praised anti-crime boss made a mysterious 24-hour visit to the U.S. consulate in nearby Chengdu. Already a member of the party’s powerful 25-member Politburo, Mr. Bo had been widely expected to enter the core leadership of the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee this fall, when a younger group will take over from the 10-year presidency of Hu Jintao and premiership of Wen Jiabao.
Mr. Bo is creative, refreshing, bold, quick-witted and handsome. His long tenure as mayor of Dalian and his later position as minister of commerce were marked by his strong personality and assertiveness. Many observers cast him as a “princeling” because his father was vice-premier in the first generation of revolutionaries who established the People’s Republic of China. But he has been at the centre of a growing national debate since he became party secretary of Chongqing and began to implement some controversial policies.
There are important lessons to be learned from Mr. Bo’s removal.
First, that there are still very few rules in the non-transparent world of Chinese politics. Some institutionalization has been taking place since Jiang Zemin handed over power to Mr. Hu a decade ago, but the Communist Party is struggling with the transition of power to the postrevolutionary generation. For the first time, the new party boss will not have been appointed by a paramount leader from the elder founders of the People’s Republic. There is no playbook – for China, this is just the second institutionalized power transition in more than 100 years.
Second, that Western coverage of Chinese politics has been consumed by elites – a narrow focus on internal power struggles and factions, often reduced to a horse race. This misses the bigger picture of the challenges facing modern China: growing inequality, rampant corruption and the difficult transition to a new development model, among others. Mr. Bo made himself popular with a massive anti-mafia and anti-corruption campaign that brought down many powerful people. He experimented with a program aimed at giving city dweller status to millions of rural migrant workers. He emphasized equal distribution of wealth, rather than just economic growth. And he flirted with Mao-era mass mobilization to gather popular support, such as the “singing red songs” movement.
Such developments cannot simply be described as a personal drive for a top leadership position, nor can it be modelled as princelings versus Communist Youth League, Jiang faction versus Hu faction, or conservatives versus liberals. The reality is far more complex. Mr. Bo is down personally, but his initiatives and style, controversial as they are, have a huge following. The test for China’s leadership is how to move the political reform agenda forward, beyond the rhetoric.
Wenran Jiang is a political science professor at the University of Alberta and a senior fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.
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