Disgraced former party secretary of Chongqing Bo Xilai
This week we have a guest contribution by John Wagner Givens, doctoral student at Oxford University, and blogger for The Huffington Post, on the Bo Xilai affair.
“The Bo Xilai affair has brought to light the dirty laundry of one of Chinese most prominent leaders, but it was the publicity itself, rather than what it exposed, that brought down Mr Bo.
For those not following the recent scandal, Bo Xilai was party secretary of the city-cum-province of Chongqing, the son of an eminent Communist leader, and thought to be bound for the pinnacle of political power. All that changed in February when his police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to the American consulate where “he told the Americans that he had been dismissed as police chief… and that he feared for his life… after confronting Mr Bo with his suspicions…” that Bo’s family was closely linked to the death of Neil Heywood, a British businessman who had died under suspicious circumstances in Chongqing. Soon after, Bo was dismissed from his position as Chongqing party chief and its related posts. On April 10th, Bo was suspended from the party’s Central Committee and Politburo and it was announced that his wife, Gu Kailai, was under investigation for “suspicion of homicide” regarding Mr Heywood’s death.
Mr Bo’s case looks familiar in that his fall from grace had as much to do with political divisions in China as his alleged crimes. While “the two Chens”, the only politburo members jailed in the past 20 years, were both charged with corruption, these cases also reflected underlying political struggles as much as actual crimes. Mr Bo is different, however, in that Mr Wang’s flight to the Americans made the scandal much more public and Mr Bo’s “rock-star status” made him a particularly attractive target.
The style, charisma and popularity among ordinary Chinese that made Mr Bo a star is also what made him a threat to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP has built an authoritarian system in which decisions are based on careful consensus building; political disagreements remain hidden and top leaders are calmly replaced once a decade. Chinese leaders carefully cultivate images as interchangeable technocrats in dark suits which helps avoid the emergence of a populist leader who could threaten the system. For China’s top leaders their predecessors’ suffering when Mao’s popularity allowed him to unleash the Cultural Revolution is still a recent memory. The last thing most of the CCP wants and China needs is Mao 2.0, but if Mr Bo’s leftist populism was not already reminiscent enough of Mao, he frequently encouraged the comparison with his promotion of Mao era culture, for example, broadcasting Mao quotes by text message.
The low profile maintained by top party leaders is a vital part of their image as unelected but competent and principled technocrats. They cannot afford undue attention, which is likely to reveal them as a bunch of over-privileged backstabbing autocrats. Bo Xilai’s actual crimes may not have been exceptional, but the attention he attracted was,and that was his real crime.”