Some Chinese leaders clearly hope that this year will mark another milestone in China’s rise under authoritarian rule: the first time that a whole new slate of leaders is chosen largely by consensus among the political elite, not handpicked by a powerful strongman.
That selection will in all likelihood still take place when the 18th Communist Party Congress meets this fall. But with the dismissal and investigation last month of Bo Xilai, the party secretary of metropolitan Chongqing, the notions of stability and consensus in China’s secretive political system have taken a big and possibly lasting hit.
Bo’s spectacular fall from grace, hastened by his police chief’s arrival at an U.S. consulate in February with a sheaf of incriminating documents, is being dissected in varying ways even before it is complete: a titanic power struggle between Bo’s neo-Maoist left and the more liberal right; infighting among ruling cliques; a seizing of the moment by Bo’s many highly motivated political enemies.
Any or all of those characterizations may be true. There is wide agreement among outsiders that Bo’s downfall points to perhaps the most serious division in the party elite since the leadership upheavals during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
But to many, neither Bo nor the explanation of his collapse is so clear-cut. They see a collision between a Communist Party that prizes stability and secrecy in choosing its leaders, and a new kind of leader who set his own political agenda and thrived on public adulation.
In a Western system, Bo might be called a populist. In China, where lockstep unity is a foundation of the party’s claim on power, he was a fearsome unknown.
“The concern was not that Bo would change the delicate balance of power, but that he would lead the party completely out of control,” said Cheng Li, an expert on China’s elite at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It’s more than a power struggle. It’s a corresponding interest to maintain the legitimacy of the Communist Party – to survive.”
“What in actuality are the rules of transferring power at the highest levels now? It’s not clear,” Wu Si, a liberal intellectual and editor based in Beijing, said in an interview. “But Bo Xilai seemed to be heading down a new road.”
Bo is mostly identified as the charismatic darling of China’s new left, the intellectuals and policy wonks who argue that China should use state power to assure social equality and enforce a culture of moral purity and nationalism. Bo’s policies in Chongqing, from the mass singing of Mao-era songs to his pitiless anti-corruption campaign, were conceived with the help of leftist theorists at the government-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
But Bo was also adaptable. As mayor of Dalian in the 1990s, he sought to remake the northeastern coastal megalopolis into a new Singapore. To waves of favorable publicity, his government rewarded citizens who fingered rude taxi drivers and fined those who uttered unpleasantries like “nao you bing” or, roughly, “numbskull.”
In Dalian, and in Chongqing, he could pursue liberal causes as easily as leftist ones. He proposed experimenting with direct elections in local townships, courted foreign investment, mounted aggressive tree-planting and pollution cleanup campaigns and built low-income housing.
Only Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who has cultivated an image as the caring grandfather figure of the national leadership, rivaled Bo’s popularity. But while the modest Wen was always careful to show his loyalty to the party’s central command, Bo often seemed to appeal to the disenfranchised masses who longed for someone to shake things up.
“Bo Xilai was differentiating himself from other leaders in a very conspicuous way,” Susan Shirk, a scholar of the Chinese elite at the University of California at San Diego, said in a recent interview. “His style of politicking was antithetical and threatening to a political oligarchy that was trying to keep the competition among themselves hidden from the general public.”
Bo’s ambition and abrasive style made some enemies in the elite, notably Wen. His posting in 2007 to Chongqing, deep in China’s interior, was seen by some as an effort to sideline him. Instead, it became the base for his campaign to join the Politburo’s Standing Committee, the nine-member body at the peak of the Communist hierarchy whose membership will turn over this fall.
In a governing elite that makes big choices by consensus, experts say, Bo might well have vaulted onto the Standing Committee with the support of sympathizers, had Chongqing’s police chief, Wang Lijun, not fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, in nearby Sichuan province.
Wang carried papers that he said implicated Bo’s family in a criminal inquiry of the death of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, an acquaintance of the Bo family. Bo and Wang are now said to be confined in Beijing while party officials investigate those and other claims.
To incumbent leaders who worried about Bo’s destabilizing impact, “the Wang Lijun case was just a godsend,” said Huang Jing, an expert on elite politics and director of the Center on Asia and Globalization at the National University of Singapore.
“It opened up a big hole, and the Bo Xilai camp, I believe, simply collapsed.”
Shorn of their standard-bearer, China’s leftists seem in at least temporary retreat. Censors this week shut down several pro-Bo websites for one month, including the well-known Utopia, which caters to the far left. Simultaneously, a weekly legal affairs magazine published an interview in which one of Utopia’s founders claimed it had been “hijacked” by extremists who promoted Bo’s experiments in Chongqing.
More broadly, China’s leadership has moved swiftly to paper over any sign of discord. Communist Party journals have showcased exhortations to promote stability and ignore malicious rumors – a clear reaction to false reports of an impending coup that spread online last week.
The People’s Liberation Army Daily newspaper minced no words. “Historical experience shows that whenever the party and country faces major issues, and whenever reform and development reach a crucial juncture, struggle in the ideological arena becomes even more intense and complex,” it said. “We must pay close attention to the impact of the Internet, mobile phones and other new media on the thinking of officers and troops.”
Enforced by the leadership, China’s rigid status quo is returning in full force. Which is not precisely what China’s reformers were hoping for.
“On first look, I think it’s a good thing,” said Wu, the liberal intellectual, of the impact of Bo’s ouster on party politics. “But on second look, I think, not necessarily.”