This week’s spectacular firing of Bo Xilai, a Communist Party “princeling” long seen destined for a seat in the country’s all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo, has delighted the country’s liberals.
The rise and fall of the controversial (and now former) boss of the southwestern city of Chongqing has shed rare light on the rampant factionalism within China’s Communist Party, an organization that usually manages to appear united to outside eyes. Mr. Bo was seen as a standard bearer of the country’s leftists, who praised him from his anti-mafia campaigns and his efforts to resurrect socialist culture.
Mr. Bo’s dismissal “is certainly good news. It means Beijing still has some clear-minded people, people who understand the times,” one of those liberals, Chongqing-based writer Wang Kang, told The Globe and Mail. “They finally understood the extremism represented by Bo and the group of princelings will lead China down a dark and horrifying road. So they threw on a sudden brake. This is a good thing, but we still need to wait and see (what happens next).”
But there are others who are angry at the loss of a figure they saw as being more responsive to popular mood than other, more distant, Chinese leaders. China’s censors, who usually spend their time trying to squelch discussion of topics such as democracy and human rights, devoted much of their efforts Thursday and Friday to putting out fires on leftist web forums, where anger flared over Mr. Bo’s fall.
Utopia, a Beijing-based website that promotes the ideas of Mao Zedong and Karl Marx was inaccessible all day Friday. “The server is undergoing maintenance!” was the message visitors got, suggesting the site had landed – at least temporarily – on the wrong side of China’s infamous “Great Firewall.”
Utopia wasn’t alone. According to the Tea Leaf Nation blog, a search for “Bo Xilai” on the Sina Weibo microblogging service returned over 1.2 million results on Thursday afternoon, Beijing time. Twenty-four hours later, a million of those comments were gone, leaving just 182,705 hits.
A sample of some of the comments that did appear online, however briefly, shows that Mr. Bo – who was unique in the Communist Party in the way he built public support for his leadership ambitions – may have more supporters than detractors.
“Don’t give up, Bo Xilai! The difficulties are temporary. Don’t cry, the ordinary people are supporting you!” was one common sentiment posted on the Chongqing page of the Baidu Tieba social networking site. The poster wrote in red text, frequently used in China to symbolize protest.
The class rhetoric Mr. Bo frequently used – despite his own affluence, he often highlighted the growing wealth gap in China – clearly won him backing. “Bo Xilai was just trying to give a bit more cake to the poor. For this he was hated and pushed out by the people on power,” read another comment on the Chongqing discussion page.
Of course, it wasn’t just Mr. Bo’s rich-and-poor rhetoric that made him popular. During my frequent trips to Chongqing, there was little question that he had won over the support of much of the population with his “Strike the Black” campaign, which smashed the city’s notorious criminal gangs. His efforts to reform the country’s discriminatory hukou registration system, which keeps migrant workers born in rural parts of China from accessing the same social services available to those born in the cities, were also admired.
Those programs were often overshadowed in the rest of China, as well as the international community, by Mr. Bo’s deliberate embrace of Maoist songs and slogans. For many, the “Sing the Red” campaign worryingly sounded like nostalgia for the era of the Cultural Revolution, a time when millions were brutally persecuted because of their wealth or a “bourgeois” family background.
It’s hard to believe that Bo Xilai – who himself was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution (as was his father, revolutionary icon Bo Yibo) – was a great believer in the Maoist ideology he was spouting in Chongqing. A former Minister of Commerce, and a pro-business governor of the northeastern province of Liaoning before that, he adopted “red culture” only after he was snubbed five years ago in his push to join the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo and sent to relatively remote Chongqing.
It seems likely that “Sing the Red” was a cynical effort to win the support of a chunk of the population, and the Communist Party, as Mr. Bo made another push for a Politburo seat.
“Bo took the easy way to win the support of ordinary people. These people do not care (about politics) they only care that their security got better and they received some other benefits (from Mr. Bo’s time in Chongqing),” said Zhang Yuren, a professor at Chongqing Normal University.
Which made him dangerous to the unelected Chinese leadership, who are understandably uncertain about how the masses feel about them. Premier Wen Jiabao warned this week that the country faced the risk of another Cultural Revolution if Chinese politics continued in their current direction. It was a jab clearly aimed at Mr. Bo, and Mr. Bo was fired less than 24 hours after Mr. Wen spoke.
The question now is whether Mr. Bo will quietly accept his banishment from the upper echelons of the Communist Party, or whether he will try to somehow use his popularity.
His father’s life may provide an example: a Communist hero who became Mao’s first Finance Minister, Bo Yibo was persecuted in the 1960s because he supported more democracy and trade with the outside world. He was released and rehabilitated during the 1980s and became one of the main supporters of the economic reforms Deng Xiaoping. But, like his son, he was hard to pin down ideologically. When students took to the streets of Beijing and other cities to demand greater democracy in the spring of 1989, Bo Yibo was one of those who urged a military crackdown.
The elder Mr. Bo was a Communist hero who was jailed and tortured for opposing the revolution. He was a reformer who supported a military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. In other words, he was political chameleon, like his son.
Anyone who wrote the political obituary of Bo Yibo after he was purged from the Communist Party in the 1960s would have been doing so decades too early. The popular response to his son’s firing suggests the saga of Bo Xilai may also be far from over.