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Xi Jinping rise and Bo Xilai demise: China will move forward with reform, slowly

The dismissal of Bo Xilai, China's controversial Politburo member, shows that Xi Jinping, slated to be China's next president, and top Communist Party members will move forward with reform step by pragmatic step, not backward to Maoist nostalgia or cult-of-personality populism.

By Robert Lawrence Kuhn / March 26, 2012

Bo Xilai, secretary of the Chongqing Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China, speaks to the media in Beijing March 9. Mr. Bo's removal as party chief of Chongqing was announced in mid-March, stoking uncertainty about how China will manage a tricky handover later this year to a new generation of leaders. Op-ed contributor Robert Lawrence Kuhn says Bo's dismissal shows the transition of power in China is moving away from Maoist nostalgia to pragmatic reforms under Xi Jinping, slated to be China's next president.



New York

Some have taken the extraordinary dismissal of Bo Xilai, China's controversial Politburo member and party secretary from Chongqing, as a sign that the transition of power in China is in trouble. On the contrary, it shows that the process has matured and is working as it needs to.

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Xi Jinping, the current vice president slated to be approved as general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in the fall and as president of China the following March, will be the first leader not chosen peremptorily by China’s prior leaders. Rather, he was selected through a broader polling of CPC officials. While neither transparent nor anonymous, the process is a big advance in China’s long march toward “intra-party democracy.”

China is an oligarchy, not a dictatorship, and ultimate authority will not be vested individually with Mr. Xi, but collectively with the CPC Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), currently with nine members. Everything in China reports to one of these nine. Xi will be first among equals, but equals the nine are, and their final composition shapes policy.

This explains the intense focus on the firing of Mr. Bo, because it was assumed he would become a PSC member in the once-a-decade top leadership shuffle. Media savvy, Bo had built a name for himself by promoting the “Chongqing Model,” a leftist-populist mixture of strong state, Maoist paeans (“Red songs”), crime crackdown, equality over productivity, and wealth redistribution.

It was never that simple. Even had he reached his peak, Bo would not have ranked in the PSC’s top half. Moreover, some of his purported backers did not share his somewhat recent leftist views. Elite politics in China is not simplistic and one-dimensional, the mere maneuverings of competing factions. Loyalties run on personal relationships as well as political philosophies, and coalitions wax and wane around specific issues.  

While many people praised Bo for jailing corrupt officials (even for executing them) and for reversing garish economic disparity, many officials worried, privately, about the revival of political mass movements and the potential for chaos. The Cultural Revolution, China’s decade-long descent into ideological madness that would end up crushing millions, hovers like an unexorcised demon.

Following the bizarre “visit” to the US Consulate of Chongqing by Vice Mayor Wang Lijun, Bo Xilai’s right-hand man for anti-mafia strikes (which liberals said violated human rights), Bo was fired. Irrespective of Bo’s deeper offenses or coming fate, the political fallout is unambiguous: The leftist-statist Chongqing Model has collapsed. This will become clearer as the PSC slots are confirmed for reformers. 

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