The straightforward narrative is that Bo Xilai, the brash and charismatic rising star of China’s Communist Party, was felled by a scandal that only the country’s central leadership knows the extent and substance of. His political fate was sealed last month when his former right-hand man briefly took refuge inside a U.S. Consulate and passed unknown information to the diplomats stationed there.
The rest of the story behind the biggest political scandal in China since party secretary Zhao Ziyang was ousted amid the turmoil of 1989 is that there are few within the Communist Party hierarchy today who are sad to see Mr. Bo fall. The party boss of the southwestern city of Chongqing was one of them, but he was also a challenger to the status quo, a charismatic populist who tried to shake up the staid world of Chinese politics. On Thursday, the status quo prevailed.
In the case of Mr. Bo – a demagogue willing to put shine to Mao Zedong’s sinister legacy if it helped him advance – that’s not a bad thing. But part of the reason he fell so fast and so hard was that he openly advocated some kind of change, which made his public posturing seem like a fresh breeze even as he spoke nostalgically of China’s dark past.
Mr. Bo was the first Communist Party politician to openly campaign for higher office (he craved a post on the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo, an aspiration that now seems dead) and he was the first to use the Internet, as well as his tight control over the Chongqing media, to lay out his platform for all Chinese citizens to see. His popularity was believed to have put him on track to achieve his dream of reaching the Politburo.
Widely seen as having secured a place in the next generation of Chinese leaders, Prime Minister Stephen Harper went out of his way to meet Mr. Bo on his recent trip to China.
Mr. Bo impressed many with his aggressive and largely successful campaign to smash Chongqing’s powerful mafia triads, even as he alarmed those concerned with the finer points of legal due process. He won over some and worried others with his embrace of “red culture” – encouraging the singing of songs from the Cultural Revolution and sending mass text messages of his favourite Mao Zedong quotes. He dispatched his bureaucrats to spend time living in the countryside, and proposed measures to break down the country’s urban-rural divide.
Fondly recalling the days of Mao was not the only taboo Mr. Bo broke. He also indirectly criticized the leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao by highlighting the enormous and growing wealth gap in this still nominally socialist state. Though seen as a protégé of former president Jiang Zemin, Mr. Bo was also developing his own support base, also anathema to China’s tightly controlled political scene. Ask a taxi driver in another part of China to name a provincial party boss, and Mr. Bo’s name was likely to jump first to their lips.
Mr. Bo became a controversial figure in China less because of his policies – which have the support of a hardline faction within the Communist Party – than his style of politics. The Communist Party leadership is a clutch of anonymous-looking technocrats who pride themselves on taking decisions collectively. Mr. Bo was flamboyant and unpredictable.
He was brash because he could be. As the son of Bo Yibo, one of the “eight immortals” of the 1949 Communist Revolution, Mr. Bo was considered a “princeling” of the Communist Party, possessing such impeccable credentials that even accusations of covering up official corruption in a previous posting as governor of the northeastern province of Liaoning slowed, but didn’t halt, his rise.
But all these transgressions – plus his police chief’s dramatic visit to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu and subsequent arrest – finally brought Mr. Bo’s ascent through the Communist Party ranks to a dramatic end Thursday, when the 62-year-old was very publicly fired from his post as Party Secretary for the southwestern city of Chongqing.
Even the way Mr. Bo’s career in the party ended broke the existing mould. As his political horizons darkened, Mr. Bo refused to quietly resign, as almost any other Communist leader would have done in the same situation. He travelled instead to Beijing, took his seat at the annual session of the National People’s Congress, and even gave a defiant press conference defending his reputation and his record in Chongqing.
Heightening the confrontation, he again criticized the country’s economic accomplishments, and thus the country’s leadership. “As Chairman Mao said as he was building the nation, the goal of our building a socialist society is to make sure everyone has a job to do and food to eat, that everybody is wealthy together,” he told reporters last week during the NPC meeting. “If only a few people are rich, then we’ve slid into capitalism. We’ve failed.” He revealed that the country’s Gini coefficient, a measure of social inequality that Beijing regards as a secret, had risen to an alarming 0.46.
Someone was going to lose face. Mr. Wen made clear on Wednesday that it would not be the central leadership. Less than 24 hours before Mr. Bo’s ouster was made official, the mild-mannered premier warned that Chongqing’s leaders needed to “seriously reflect” on their actions. “The results of what we have achieved may be lost. A historical tragedy like the Cultural Revolution could be repeated. Each party member and cadre should feel a sense of urgency,” Mr. Wen said.
“[Mr. Bo]tried to go high-profile, which is actually striking back. It was definitely not going to work, because it just forced the people who oppose him to beat him down,” said Zhang Ming, a professor of political science at Renmin University in Beijing. “If he had resigned earlier, his situation might have been better than it is now.”
What happens next is far from clear. Some see a victory for the party’s reformist wing – of which Mr. Wen is the retiring figurehead – over a hardline conservative wing that Mr. Bo’s Chongqing campaigns seemed designed to win the support of. But the naming of Zhang Dejiang, another member of Mr. Jiang’s faction and the owner of a degree in economics from Kim Il-sun University in North Korea, smells instead of a classic Communist Party compromise, maintaining the delicate balance between the two factions that Mr. Bo had threatened to upset.
None of which addresses the issues that Mr. Bo’s popularity made plain. “The [Communist Party]top leadership will have to debate not only about Bo’s personal future, but more importantly, how some of the tough issues facing every city in China can be managed with a new set of measures, if Bo’s are no longer acceptable,” said Jiang Wenran, a senior fellow at the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada.
Many will look to see what Mr. Bo – who remained silent following his dismissal Thursday – does now. Does he accept his punishment and retire from politics? Does he go abroad, where he has a vast network of friends from his time as the country’s Commerce Minister? Or does he dig in and try to somehow fight the system, turning to those who still view him as a hero for his efforts to smash the Chongqing mafia and who admire his rhetoric about social inequality? Given the strength of his enemies, and the swirling allegations of corruption, he could face prosecution if he does.
It’s likely that the leadership handover that begins this fall will continue as planned, only with another Jiang protégé taking the spot once believed reserved for Mr. Bo on the nine-person Standing Committee.
Mr. Bo’s campaign for higher office shed rare light on the divisions inside the higher echelon of the Communist Party. Now, the leadership appears to have once more closed ranks. The brash princeling – who two months seemed destined to join the upper leadership – has been cast out.