Dismissing Bo Xilai: A Red Canary in the Coal Mine Ahead of China’s Leadership

The dismissal of Bo Xilai from his position as the CPC Chongqing Committee Secretary after the Wang Lijun incident has received widespread coverage in international press and the Western media. Wang Lijun, Bo’s loyal police chief, was found in the American Embassy on February 6, and was widely understood to have revealed classified information against Bo. Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institute, was quoted in the Financial Times as saying that Bo’s purge from power could have an impact of the same magnitude as the purge of Zhao Ziyang after the June Fourth incident of 1989. I concur with Li on the significance of the dismissal, and would argue that it reflects deep divisions within factions of the CCP, and raises uncertainty around the upcoming transition of power this fall. While first appearing as an incident of political misconduct over Bo’s management style and alleged corruption charges, the discourse on the incident shifted radically since April, when both the press and the CPC focused on criminal accusations relating Bo and his wife to the murder of British national Neil Heywood last November. In the public space, Bo’s case now appears to be a criminal one rather than a political one. I believe this meditated change in discourse will reveal some of the complexities in Party politics, and is in no ways coincidental. I will attempt to analyze the motives and implications of Bo’s dismissal from three perspectives: from Bo’s point of view, its indication for future political trends, and the potential bearing on the selection of the eighteenth Politburo Standing Committee this fall.

Bo, a long time political star and contender for party leadership, is the son of former Vice-Premier Bo Yibo. He has always long held high aspirations and was on track for one of the nine positions in the standing committee of the Politburo. His legacy-aided rise to power is characteristic of one of the two dominant factions in the party, commonly referred to as the “Princelings.” Such an elite status in a country dedicated to socialist ideals can be a double edged sword: Bo found himself as an outspoken target for both his persona and his policies.

His high profile politics found their way well into both domestic and foreign media, and drew steady support from his subjects. Most recently through his position in Chongqing, he implemented Maoesque policies known in Chinese as “Sing Red, Beat Black.”  “Red” refers to populist movements he has created in his support, echoing the Cultural Revolution; “black” references his aggressive anti-crime and anti-corruption politics. While some have argued that these heavy-handed crackdowns drew criticism from the party center, I believe they served a symbolic, peripheral role in Bo’s politics. Anti-crime and corruption banners have long been used as political means across the country to reach certain goals, be it purging certain factions (one would recall the Chen Liangyu incident in Shanghai of 2006) or to send a specific message to private businesses.

His flashy, left leaning politics has drawn two main groups of opponents: reformers who are dissatisfied with China’s neo-Maoist economic and social policies; and empowered elites who are uncomfortable with his public prominence. But it is worth remembering that while policies running against the central directives have played a significant role, the personal element to this struggle is also of consequence. At the heart of the attacks directed against Bo is a challenge for his lack of humility, and his embrace of an independent style for which the ruling hierarchy has little tolerance. Susan Shirk, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State under the Clinton administration, argued that it was Bo’s open campaign for power and use of media to mobilize the populace that led to his removal. Shirk’s individual-based analysis coincides with the views of critics who have noted a shift towards a Bonapartist, bureaucratic state with greater centralization and checks-and-balances, and away from the strong-man, charisma politics that prevailed under Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Bo’s outspokenness simply does not fit into the grand scheme of politics that calls for subservience and harmony. From this point of view, his dismissal can also be seen as clearing away potential opponents to the ascent of Xi Jinping, widely accepted as the leader-elect of China come this fall. Bo’s fervent challenge to the core of party politics and his lack of respect for the future leaders is one, but perhaps not the most significant, of all reasons for his dismissal.

While I still believe that it is Bo’s politics that has antagonized him from the rest of the Party, it is his involvement in the criminal case of Neil Heywood’s murder that puts an end to his career. Neil Heywood was a British national and a long-time resident of China. Until recently, little was revealed about his death last November, but it has since surfaced that Heywood had close links with the Bo family, and might have worked in consulting capacities for British organizations and Chinese businesses. His murder has been tied to Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, who is under criminal investigations and may be executed for her involvement in the case. It is widely believed that Gu and Heywood had a very intimate (and possibly romantic) relationship, as well as close business cooperation in transferring Bo’s family assets abroad. The new association of the murder case and Bo not only casts a criminal shadow on his dismissal, but has also resulted in international pressure from the British and American government for a thorough investigation regarding the murder case. Bo has been suspended from all his political offices since April 10, including his membership in the Politburo.

The dismissal of Bo not only represents the end of his political career, but also of the “Chongqing model” of politics associated with his leadership. This left-leaning policy, which involved redistribution of wealth and welfare, was seen as one of two simultaneous experiments regarding China’s future direction. Bo’s removal symbolizes the Party’s rejection of the “Chongqing model” in favor of the “Guangdong model,” led by another political star, Wang Yang. The “Guangdong model” represents a market-oriented approach that is politically aligned with the top-down neo-liberal reform policies. Though this simple division raises the question of what the “Chongqing model” really is. Some of the economic successes Bo has delivered since 2007, such as substantial GDP growth, have been aided by a boost in private sector contributions from 25 to 60 percent. The “Chongqing” model may be less of an anti-capitalist economic policy, and more of a neo-socialist socio-economic policy. And indeed some of these policies in increasing welfare, such as a small but significant public housing project in the outskirts of Chongqing, have been replicated (without credit) nation-wide.

The main difference between the “Chongqing” and the “Guangdong” policies has been their divergent approaches to addressing the growing social problems brought about by China’s rapid growth (the country has a Gini coefficient as high as that of Swaziland). Both models have certain commonalities, but in general, the “Chongqing model” represents a welfare-based solution contrary to the consumer spending-based “Guangdong model.” Part of the reason why the “Chongqing model” received such wide attention nationwide had to do with the massive social unrest the neo-liberal policies have created, and the populist appeal welfare policies such as medical insurance and pensions have drawn. On the other end, the Guangdong economy has been presented to the nation as a prime example of a graceful transition towards a high-tech economy that will build itself around higher wages, and, therefore, high, growth-spurring consumer spending. As the West eagerly anticipates signals about the new direction of China’s market economy in the era of rising global influence, Bo’s dismissal has deep implications. China is likely to further its classical neo-liberal economic policies, domestically and abroad, in the years to come over experimenting a neo-socialist policy. Using faster economic reform to cure—or at least distract from—social problems, has at least judging from the West’s example, not been the most successful way forward. It will therefore be interesting to watch its ramifications in domestic Chinese politics and in addressing social upheaval.

Most interesting of all, however, are the implications on the upcoming transition of power. While the West has fixated its attention on the two top positions, the President and the Premier, which have been more or less agreed upon since 2007, the real battle at the upcoming transition during the Eighteenth National Congress this fall is over the nine positions in the Standing Committee of the Politburo. These nine leaders are historically known to be the nine persons who dictate the policies of China, holding all the top positions. It is the struggle between factions to secure and consolidate their legacies in the decennial transition of power. Here, the political terrain can be loosely characterized into three sometimes-overlapping groups: the Princelings, a generation of second-generation leaders who ascended to power by connection; the Jiang faction, those who were selected and handpicked by former President Jiang Zemin; and the Youth League faction, those who like the current leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao rose through the party ranks in the Communist Youth League.

Bo, like the leader-elect Xi, was a Princeling who was also chosen by Jiang Zemin—Jiang asserted his cross-generational legacy by choosing Xi (contrary to contemporary leaders’ preferences) as the next leader in 2007. The suppression of the influence of Jiang Zemin in the party’s next generation is high on the agenda of the current leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, who like previous generations of leaders strive to create a following that will protect their influence in the years after retirement. This is especially important to them, given the restraints of operating in the past ten years under a Jiang-influenced Politburo Standing Committee, with individuals such as Wu Bangguo and Jia Qinglin, both remnants of the previous leadership.

The removal of high-profile Jiang faction Princelings like Bo from contention not only shakes up the challenge for these positions, but also sends an important message to check others in their group. Behind the scenes, Hu and Wen are trying to create a majority representation of Youth League faction members in the nine members of the Politburo, which has so far been an uphill battle considering that their protégé, Li Keqiang, could only secure second-best as Premier-in-waiting in 2007, losing to Jiang’s appointment of Xi Jinping. Bo’s dismissal is only one of the many steps needed to satisfy these interests, and the battle is far from over. Hawk-eyed observers would have noticed too that it was the current bosses, and not the future leader, who have spoken most critically of Bo’s handling of the Wang Lijun incident. Xi, who has been downplaying the event’s significance and pressing for a low-key solution, has responded to these attacks with less fervor for good reason. His role in this puzzle, while securing peaceful transition, is to create his own following that will not leave him in the shadow and the strings of Hu and Wen.

Why did the Party shift its focus from the political to the criminal? I believe this question reveals several considerations related to Bo’s dismissal, and its nationwide impact. The Party would not have moved against Bo without full knowledge of the case, as is evident in the month following the Wang Lijun incident in February. As such, I believe Bo’s initial removal from his Chongqing office on March 15 was a deliberate choice to limit the political damage of the case on Party politics. Initially, many likely argued that the case should be handled with a soft-landing, as that would best serve the unity of the Party and future politics. However, Bo’s political dismissal met with discontent from the government and the military. Military chiefs such as Guo Bohong made visits to the Southwest to deliver messages of unity and obedience under Hu’s leadership to Bo’s supporters in the military. In the interim before the criminal scandal, the incident generated unrest rather than stability. I believe it is this phenomenon that triggered the second-wave purging of Bo with criminal evidence. Returning to an almost-forgotten, six-month-old death is not a political coincidence, especially given that the British government also dismissed the possibility of foul play in Heywood’s death until the Chinese government reopened the case. It is believed that Wang Lijun, Bo’s police chief, revealed Bo’s involvement to the Americans during his temporary stay at the embassy. However, I think the Party would not have taken up the criminal case had it not been demanded by political necessities. Facilitated by reports in the state media, this turn seals the fate of Bo’s political career and renders impossible the potential soft-landing predicted previously. By seriously punishing Bo, the Party has demonstrated its determination to uproot any dissonance before the handover of power this fall. The criminal investigation allows Party leaders to claim simple obedience to the rule of law, and present a positive, neutral, orderly image to foreign stakeholders. As it is right now, these criminal charges offer both a show for the West, and a veil to hide greater political ambitions.

What does the future hold, then, for Bo and the country? Bo’s removal from all offices on April 10, in addition to his removal as CPC Chongqing Committee Secretary on March 15, spells the end of his political career. It is still unclear whether he will be criminally prosecuted for crimes related to the Neil Heywood case. Looking ahead, it is important to recognize the Party schisms that this incident has revealed. I believe not only that the relationship between Xi and Li, hailing from different party factions, will not be as smooth as that between Hu and Wen was this decade, but also that future internal struggles within the CCP will result in party policies, direction, and a future that will be constantly revised. For one we know that Deng Xiaoping’s theory of “no inner struggle” has been, and will continue to be, breached. Behind the stable façade the nation’s leaders have worked to create, domestic power struggles will continue to dominate the Chinese political scene. While policy-wise I see little difference beyond the personas and charismas these incoming individuals will bring with them, the lack of unity may some day trip the Party as it tries to macro-manage the everyday life of an increasingly sophisticated people. As some critics have put it, it might well be that the CCP is growing into the one-party, multi-faction model of Liberal Democratic Party in Japan that have ruled the island-nation for over five decades.


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