TSG IntelBrief: The Mystery of Chinese Politics: The Case of Bo Xilai and the 18th Party Congress
As of late May 2012, one of the great mysteries in Chinese studies — the complex dynamics that undergird the decision-making process involving senior leaders and leadership transition — has shown that it is alive and well in Beijing. The widely reported scenario involving Bo Xilai, the Party Secretary of the city of Chongqing and one of China’s top leaders, is an illustrative case in point. Bo Xilai is what is known in China as a princeling: the progeny of a prominent and influential senior communist Chinese leader. His father was Bo Yibo, one of China’s original revolutionary veterans, was once purged by Chairman Mao, but later returned to power by Deng Xiaoping.
As with other princelings, Bo Xilai benefited professionally and personally from his ancestor’s elevated status. As the Party Secretary of Chongqing, he embarked on what came to be called the “Chongqing model,” involving a high-profile campaign against organized crime, the construction of housing for the poor, and frequent displays of public patriotism and aggressive nationalism reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. In 2009, Bo’s crackdown against crime and corruption was publicly praised by Zhou Yongkang, one of China’s senior-most leaders and the former Minister of Public Security in China.
With his accomplishments — and Zhou’s patronage — many expected Bo Xilai to ascend to the all-powerful, nine-member Politburo Standing Committee this Fall at the 18th Party Congress, the once-a-decade meeting overseeing the transition to a new cadre of senior leaders. Instead, he was disgraced and stripped of his Party and leadership posts this spring in a bizarre corruption/murder scandal involving allegations of the arbitrary exercise of power against his personal enemies; that his wife was involved in the murder of Neil Heywood, a British citizen; and that his family embezzled public funds and transferred those funds overseas.
Challenges for the Party
What really happened and whether there is substance behind the accusations — or if it was nothing more than behind-the-scenes maneuvering for political gain by Bo’s opponents in the run-up to China’s leadership transition — are questions that, in the course of Chinese politics, may remain unanswered for years, even decades, after the event. At the least, Bo’s apparent downfall has pulled back the curtain on the Party’s concerted efforts to present leadership transitions as well-orchestrated and routine. It has also highlighted a number of key challenges the Party faces, challenges that senior leaders would probably prefer to remain hidden. These include:
Difficulties controlling information. Bo’s case illustrates the increasing difficulty for China’s central leaders to control the flow of information as they once did. An event that in the past may have surfaced briefly, and then disappeared as an inexplicable leadership anomaly, has already lasted for months. It has been given legs by a more open and competitive media in China, by easy wireless access to information, and by a vibrant Chinese blogging community that keeps feeding the story. The story became harder to control after Wang Lijun, head of the Public Security Bureau in Chongqing, spent a day at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu in early February to meet with U.S. officials. At the time, Wang’s consulate visit led to explosive rumors in China’s social media that he was trying to defect.
Questions about Party unity. Bo Xilai’s disgrace also raises questions about the extent of political unity within the Party over the vision for China’s future. Party leaders have worked for decades to convey the appearance of consensus, to assure that all senior leaders are seemingly in agreement on policy. But China’s current leadership under Party Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao has struggled under the perception that China’s meteoric economic success has come at the expense of the working class and the poor who had long been championed by the Communist Party. Ideological splits along these lines were apparent in the years after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms of 1978, and the fractiousness these differences created taught Party leaders the importance of orchestrating the appearance of a united front. But the “Chongqing model” and Bo Xilai’s more assertive egalitarian rhetoric were seen by some as an implicit — and more direct — criticism of China’s current leadership, suggesting that the public face of a unified leadership may be hiding serious divisions among them.
Spotlight on corruption. China’s Communist Party has long struggled with allegations of corruption that have tarnished both its image and legitimacy. The Party has conducted a series of anti-corruption campaigns over the years, publicly calling corruption one of the Party’s most serious problems and vowing to root it out. Bo Xilai’s egalitarian rhetoric aside, the publicity surrounding his case has revealed increasing details about the Bo family’s wealth, reinforcing the public view — already widely held — that top Party officials routinely abuse their political power to accumulate vast personal fortunes. The Bo case further undermines the Party’s credibility about the zeal and effectiveness of its anti-corruption effort.
The Way Forward
The interested observer (or policymaker) who wishes to spend time reading the tea leaves in the coming months about the implications of the Bo Xilai case for China’s coming leadership transition — and thus, for China’s overall policy direction and stability — may glean some insight from a number of factors:
The degree of factual support for the substantive allegations against the Bo family. Chinese authorities investigating the case need to be able to effectively prove that the charges of corruption and/or murder against the Bo family are genuine. Such evidence would be important to assuring the public that Chinese leadership dynamics were not returning to the arbitrary and disruptive political infighting that characterized China’s not-too-distant past. It would also be an important assurance to Bo’s ideological supporters that their views about China’s policy direction were seen as legitimate by the leadership in Beijing.
The impact on the Party’s anti-corruption efforts. Given the perceptions in the wake of the Bo case, the Party once again faces an uphill battle in convincing the public that it is serious about combating corruption within Party ranks and creating a more equitable and law-driven economic environment. Failure in this effort will further erode the Party’s credibility.
The affect of the Bo case in coming months on the schedules and public appearances of China’s leaders-in-waiting. The focus will be on those who have long been expected to be named to senior positions in the Party and government this Fall and next Spring. Routine public schedules for Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and other senior leaders would suggest that the Bo case has not gone so far as to adversely affect the leadership’s ability to convey consensus and unity.
The future of the Chongqing model and what direction its new Party Secretary will take. The road ahead will either involve an extension and broadening of Bo Xilai’s legacy programs described above or lead to major policy changes in the same areas.
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