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China: Looking Beyond Ouster of Bo Xilai

“The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party has decided: Comrade Zhang Dejiang will serve as Standing Committee member and Secretary of Chongqing Municipal Party Committee; Comrade Bo Xilai will no longer serve in the post of Standing Committee member and Secretary of the Chongqing Municipal Party Committee”. – Xinhua, 15 March 2012

The removal of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo member Bo Xilai, son of Bo Yibo, a Long March veteran and one of the eight ‘immortals’ of China, from his post of Chongqing Municipal Party Secretary on 14 March 2011, as revealed through the terse announcement above, has marked the third such occasion in the recent past – Beijing Party Secretary Chen Xitong in 1995 and Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu in 2006, had met the same fate; both for economic reasons. At a time when Bo’s candidature to the top party body- the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) at the forthcoming 18th Party Congress in October 2012 was being considered certain, the development has given rise to questions as to whether or not a smooth transfer of power can take place during the Congress.

What is surprising is that till January 2012, Bo Xilai’s performance in Chongqing in fighting corruption and the local mafia had been winning accolade from the central leadership; his promotion of Mao culture and views endorsing reforms , but opposing any erosion into state-controlled economic system, could gain sympathy, if not complete endorsement, of many in the population. Under Bo, Chongqing had 16% growth in 2011.Leaders visiting Chongqing to support Bo’s “Chongqing Model” of development had included Xi Jinping, Vice President and heir-apparent to President Hu Jintao and Zhou Yongkang, a Politburo Standing Committee member ; Beijing had also given its weight to facilitate the visit of Dr Henry Kissinger to Chongqing to meet Bo. (However, Hu Jintao himself chose not to visit Chongqing to meet Bo).The Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily (9 January 2011) hailed the success of Bo’s policies in Chongqing. Then, what has led to the sudden downfall of Bo Xilai?

Bo Xilai himself has reportedly sent a letter to the politburo making self-criticism; he admitted to reporters ( 9 March 2012) that he had made mistakes and that there was lapse in his judgment during his campaign against local mafia, asserting at the same time that he and his family were not corrupt.

So far, no direct charges have been leveled against Bo. There have however been oblique attacks. For example, Xi Jinping, prior to Bo’s removal, has called upon the leading cadres (Party School, Beijing, 1 March 2012) to “ fairly use their power, keep away from corruption and resolutely oppose the tendencies of … hedonism and extreme individualism”. Writing in Qiu Shi, the CCP’s theoretical organ, he pointed out (10 March 2012) to the “dangers of self promotion and seeking personal fame in the party”. Xi has subsequently emphasized (Qiu Shi, 16 March 2012) the need for the party to maintain ‘purity’ , applying ‘collective wisdom’ and accused “some party members of lacking principle and correct behavior”.

As yet another instance, announcing that Bo Xilai’s successor will be Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang, the CCP Organisation Department chief Li Yuanchao, said (Beijing, 18 March 2012) at a meeting of leading cadres from Chongqing municipality that “the adjustment was made after a reevaluation of the current overall situation and careful consideration.” (Choice of word ‘adjustment’ is to be noted).

What Premier Wen Jiabao has said at a press conference (Beijing, 14 March 2012) is especially worth noting. Without alluding to Bo Xilai, he asked the Chongqing authorities to “seriously reflect on and draw lessons from Wang Lijun incident, adding that China needs not only economic reform but also political reform, with out which historical tragedies as Cultural Revolution may happen in China again”. Notably, domestic media reports in China (April 2011) had quoted Wen as criticizing certain cadres for having a nostalgia for the Mao era.

What should not be missed is that Bo Xilai has been addressed in Xinhua dispatch of 15 March 2012 as “comrade”; appointment of Bo’s successor is being termed as ‘adjustment’. These appear as hints that the former Chongqing party chief continues to be a CCP member. But it is also interesting that since that date, no report on Bo’s activities has appeared in the official media, signaling some uncertainty. At this stage, in absence of any official announcement on Bo’s party membership including in the politburo, it can be assumed that Bo is still under investigation which process may take some more time to conclude. Adding to the apparent complexity of the case, are press reports linking Bo Xilai affair with the ‘mysterious’ death of one Neil Heywood, a former British MI-6 official in Chongjing, said to be a family friend of Bo.

Going by evidences available so far, it may be premature to attach any ideological colour to Bo Xilai’s case. Some assessments, especially in the Western media, that Bo has become a victim of the ideological struggle between party conservatives and reformists appear to have been done in haste. Bo himself is a cautious reformer and his promotion of Mao culture in Chongqing, only looks a step to gain popularity. On the other hand, his crimes, if any, could be related to corruption, in particular mismanagement of Wang Lijun affair.

Notwithstanding what has been said above, it cannot be denied that there are competing factions now in the CCP’s top leadership, though China may not openly acknowledge the same. Mao had been candid in referring to existence of factionalism within the party. The current party factions which have so far been successful in working together on the basis of a consensus are – the Youth League (Tuanpai) faction led by Hu Jintao and the other consisting of children of high ranking officials, called ‘princelings’. While the former champions the cause of social harmony and balanced development , the latter consists of economic experts with connections to advanced coastal areas, who especially prefer a high GDP growth. It is not difficult to discern the balanced presence of the two factions in the present apex party body- the PBSC. Any failure of Bo Xilai, a ‘Princeling’, to enter the new PBSC, can upset the requirement to maintain the system of factional balance at top levels, in the interest of leadership stability. Jiang Zemin had been the ‘core’ of third generation leadership and his decision was unchallenged. The situation is different now with Hu Jintao being only primus inter pares in the leadership and policies are being decided on the basis of a consensus. This position is not likely to undergo any change when Xi Jinping assumes charge as next party chief.

One thing is certain. In the existing delicate period for the party facing the impact from the Bo Xilai case, no bold step towards political reforms, in spite of Premier Wen Jiabao’s oft-repeated stress on the same, can be expected in the 18th Party congress. The principle of ‘socialist democracy’, as distinct from the Western democratic concepts , is sure to prevail in China as long as the CCP remains in power.

( The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies,Chennai,

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