The Fallout of the Bo Xilai Scandal
By Stewart Pollock
Monitoring Chinese politics can feel more like an art than a science, thanks to the ruling Communist Party’s aggressively opaque nature. Especially at the highest levels of the China’s leadership, little official information is ever made available, leaving ample room for speculation and guesswork. When China’s next presumptive leader, Xi Jinping disappeared in early September, canceling a series of public appearances as well as a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, theories on what caused his absence ranged from cancer treatment to an assassination attempt. Upon Xi’s reappearance two weeks later, the state run news agency Xihua made no reference to the cause of his disappearance. The highest echelons of China’s leadership increasingly match the description Winston Churchill once gave to the Soviet Union as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside of an enigma.”
In light of incidents like this one, the scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, a now disgraced member of the Communist Party, is all the more shocking for how public it has been. The fall of Bo, the former Chongqing party boss who was once believed to be on the short list to ascend to the premiership, has been as dramatic as it was rapid. The widely reported murder trial of Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, along with the recent conviction of former police chief and whistle blower Wang Lijun, have made Bo a well-known figure outside of China. Perhaps more significantly, however, such incidents have also blurred what impact he and other leftist, anti-liberal leaders will have on the future of the world’s most populous country.
The story of Bo Xilai’s downfall began in February when Chief Wang fled to the United States consulate in Chengdu, near Bo’s home city of Chongqing. Seeking asylum, Wang claimed knowledge of the 2011 murder of Neil Haywood, a British businessman. Specifically, Wang had found that Haywood was likely murdered by Gu Kailai and her bodyguard after a business deal went sour. When he attempted to confront Bo, who was both Gu’s husband and his own boss, Wang was transferred, demoted and eventually fired. The high profile nature of Wang’s attempt to gain asylum in the U.S. Embassy resulted in considerable loss of face for Bo, and when it became clear that Gu was likely responsible for the murder, Bo was stripped of his position, his party titles and eventually his membership to the Communist Party, clearing the way for his arrest.
While the drama of the Heywood murder has highlighted the enormous corruption at China’s top levels, it also overshadows some of the nuances of internal Chinese politicking. Bo is, or rather was, a major advocate of China’s “new Left” which, paradoxically, represented a very conservative force in the country’s politics. Specifically, his “Chongqing Model” which he used to govern that city eschewed a combination of pragmatic market reforms and adherence to strict Maoism. He and other new Leftist acted as a force of conservatism, opposing the economic liberalization favored by Beijing. Bo was also an ardent opponent of organized crime — his “Sing red and Smash black” campaign against alleged gangsters relied on a mixture of his trademark populism and promotion of “red” culture and song dating back to the Cultural Revolution. His personal appeal made him a superstar within Chongqing, but his heavy-handedness and disregard for legal proceedings when prosecuting “gangsters” made him plenty of enemies both inside Chongqing and in Beijing.
Although it is unclear whether Bo was directly involved in the Heywood murder, it is abundantly clear that he was hardly as idealistic as his public persona suggested. In fact, Bo’s anti-crime crusade seems to have many of the features normally associated with a Maoist purge. Some of those rounded up by the Chongqing police were successful businessmen whose power threatened Bo’s own grip on state run businesses. One such victim, Li Jun, was one of the province’s 30 richest men. After he got into a land dispute with the government, Li found himself under increasing pressure from the police force headed by Xi. In the end, according to the Financial Times, Li “transferred ownership of his properties to his brother, Li Xiuwu and his nephew Tai Shihua…[He] also divorced his wife in an effort to protect her and their two young daughters, and fled Chongqing.” Li was later kidnapped by police who tortured him for extended periods in an attempt to extract confessions to crimes ranging from bribery to pimping to gun-running. Li is just one of countless beneficiaries of China’s economic liberalization who have suffered under Bo’s crackdown.
Bo Xilai’s disgrace has greatly diminished the clout of China’s new Left, but the latter still exists as a potent and growing force on the conservative fringe of Chinese society and politics. And the new Left is unusually diverse. A variety of low-ranking government officials, writers, and overseas activists all agree with Bo’s position — that the negative consequences of economic liberalization have outweighed the benefits. Yet it is ultimately a regressive stance. Similar to how many Russians have looked back fondly on Stalinism — a poll in 2008 ranked him the third greatest Russian — these new leftists have a taken a rose-tinted perspective of Mao and the Great Leap Forward. Bo himself should know this: during the later stages of the Cultural Revolution, his father Bo Yibo was denounced as a “Counterrevolutionary” and imprisoned, only released after Mao’s death and the overthrow of the leftist “Gang of Four”.
In any event, China’s once-a-decade transition of power looks to go off as planned this December. During the 2012 Communist Party Congress President Hu Jintao and other members of the “Old Guard” will cede their power to younger leaders, including Xi, who will almost certainly assume the presidency. In other circumstances, it could have been Bo who took the helm of the world’s fastest growing power. That he did not seems to be a good thing: Bo’s ruthlessness and reactionary politics would have done little good for either China or the world. It is very likely a Bo Xilai led China would reverse the course set by Deng Xiaoping in the wake of Mao’s death, instead returning to the violence and nationalism of the Cultural Revolution. Instead of attending the conference, Bo will be preparing to go on trial. His wife, Gu Kailai, has already pleaded guilty to the charges of murdering Heywood, and been given a suspended death sentence — suspended only due to some speculation that the woman who appeared in court was a paid replacement for Gu. Wang, for his part, has not been seen recently, undoubtedly devoured by the labyrinthine Chinese legal system.
If anything can be inferred from the story of Bo Xilai, it is that China’s leaders are more than willing to destroy one of their own if they so much as suspect him of violating the party line. Bo was one of the most powerful and dangerous men in China, and yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, the Politburo standing committee have done their best to render him an “unperson” inside China. In this case, their aggressiveness may have aided China’s liberalization and stopped a dangerous populist renegade. But it can hardly be called an act of altruism, instead reminding the world that China is determined to continue building its political and economic clout, no matter what it takes.