Of course, there are other ways to think about Bo Xilai’s newest humiliation and his misadventures in Chongqing – besides seeing this as the inevitable cutting down of an oversized politician who flew too close to the sun. But it may take some time for those outside the inner chambers of the Forbidden City to get to the heart of what has happened to Bo. J. BROOKS SPECTOR opens his Chinese book of wisdom.
What we do know is that Bo Xilai, the high-flying mayor of Chongqing, an independently administered city-state next to Sichuan Province with a population of a mid-sized European nation, has now been unceremoniously and rather publicly stripped of his position.
Chongqing has been an important city for a thousand years. In 1937 it was the wartime capital of Generalissimo Chaing Kai-Shek’s government and the location for a bookcase worth of journalist, diplomat, traveler and military officer tales of squalor, overcrowding, treacherous terrain, great hardship, impossible living and working conditions – and great heroism in the face of near-constant attacks by the Japanese air force.
During the war, the Nationalist Chinese government also moved whole universities and factories to Chongqing transforming it into a heavily industrialised city. At the end of the war, US president Roosevelt praised the city’s spirit, writing that the city’s inhabitants “proved gloriously that terrorism can not destroy the spirit of a people determined to be free. Their fidelity to the cause of freedom will inspire the hearts of all future generations.” Curiously, in spite of everything that came afterwards, Chongqing has a monument to an American general – “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell, the wartime commander on the China-Burma-India front. Today, with a population of 32-million, it is a vast city that rivals a major western megalopolis, situated on the great, sweeping bends of the Jialing and upper Yangtze Rivers.
While Bo has been relieved of his governmental position and replaced by his deputy, it is not clear if he will also lose his seat as one of 25 members of the Politburo. Until this political defenestration, Chinese and foreign observers had viewed Bo as one of China’s high-flyers, a man almost certainly destined for even higher things.
But it all came unstuck when Bo’s handpicked police chief Wang Lijun, suddenly sought refuge in the US consulate in Chengdu for 24 hours. The chief had come under suspicion as part of a corruption inquiry, and some reports suggested Wang had sought political asylum in the consulate. Bo undoubtedly saw the blade coming down when Prime Minister Wen Jiabao publicly rebuked him for this scandal only a day before his dismissal.
Unlike most Chinese politicians who choose a kind of anonymity in their uniformity of dress and public demeanour, Bo seemingly revelled in domestic and international media coverage as well as his obvious popularity.
In addition, Bo had been nurturing the so-called “red revival”, a movement that was cheerleading more equitable wealth distribution in the midst of some serious wealth, accumulating it in the hands of a few and the flouting that wealth with some serious public bling. A key part of that “red revival” had included a return to Maoist era nationalist jingoism and pageantry. To the evident pleasure of crowds, Bo had led mass, sing-alongs of those good old “Red Culture” songs, conducted ad hoc TV colloquies with protesting workers and even used mass SMS texting to reach out and touch Chinese students.
Curiously, only a week before Bo’s political undoing, China’s national news agency, Xinhua, had reported that Bo Xilai was urging new measures to meet the aspirational lifestyle needs of Chongqing’s millions. Xinhua had also praised Bo’s efforts to reform the residential registration system (crucial for claiming social benefits), support for small business and Bo’s crackdown on what it termed “gangdom”. This didn’t sound like the kind of thing a government press agency would write if its editors had known Bo was about to get his red card.
Until this most recent bit of unpleasantness, the 62-year-old politician had been part of Chinese Communist Party royalty and rising through increasingly demanding positions. Over the years, Bo had garnered some significant publicity from his efforts to crack down on Chongqing’s “mafia” that had not just targeted the usual criminal suspects, but also some senior government officials in cahoots with the crooks.
And until his public humiliation, Bo was part of a new leadership cohort that included Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. With Bo’s media savvy and experience, he was the poster child for the next leadership cohort – the “princelings”. (Xi has just come back from a pretty slick trip to the US, including toe-to-toe meetings with Obama.)
Now, unlike Bo, Xi and Li are about to get bigger jobs. Even some pretty savvy China watchers like Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution in Washington had tagged Bo as one of the key figures to watch in future. Somebody was obviously keeping an eye on Bo, but apparently not for a higher pay grade. But the man is a survivor. He grew up during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, he’s fluent in English, earned a post-graduate degree and, perhaps most crucially, had entered government service just as China began its market-based economic reforms in the late 1970s.
And Bo is no newbie to political rustication. Back during the Cultural Revolution, his parents had been purged for supporting trade with the West and Bo and his family went to prison where his mother was beaten to death. But, when Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, his father, Bo Yibo, was brought back to be vice premier. His father rehabilitated, Bo’s family returned to Beijing and Bo Xilai earned his BA in history from Peking University and a master’s from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
But, on Thursday, that brief Xinhua press statement announced Bo Xilai had been removed from his post and that vice premier Zhang Dejiang had replaced him. Zhang Dejiang is reported to be a North Korea-trained economist. Meanwhile, Xinhua said police chief Wang was under investigation and had been removed from his post as deputy mayor of Chongqing.
Speculation about Bo’s future had grown when he failed to pitch up for a meeting of the Politburo. When he appeared the next day during a meeting of the National People’s Congress, he told reporters he had made a mistake by trusting Wang. Bo said, “After this problem came out, I was very sympathetic. I feel like I put my trust in the wrong person.” Given the circumstances, there will obviously be an investigation, but Bo doesn’t look to be favoured to lead it. Just before Bo was fired, Premier Wen Jiabao issued a public rebuke, saying party leaders in Chongqing “must seriously reflect” on the Wang incident and “learn lessons” from it.
Beijing-based China analyst David Kelly commented that critics of Bo’s anti-corruption campaign may have seen it as a shift in the wrong direction. “The methods used by Wang Lijun with the approval of Bo Xilai were in a sense going backward rather than forward on the scale of rule of law,” Kelly said. However, some Internet and social media users have now likened Bo’s downfall to the fate of the “Gang of Four.
Despite being fired as mayor, Bo Xilai remains a member of the Communist Party’s 25-member Politburo. If he loses that seat, it will be the first time an incumbent member of the Politburo has been removed in the past five years. Chinese history does offer examples of returns from the political wilderness – not least Bo’s ultimate mentor Deng and his own father. Given his political skills and popularity with citizens, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that, after a suitable period of self-reflection and contrition, the party will find a way to bring Bo back to the harness? After all, didn’t Richard Nixon make it back from the political wilderness just in time to get to Beijing? DM
Photo: Former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo waves Chinese national flag in Chongqing municipality. REUTERS/Jason Lee.
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