Bo Xilai: a stunning and highly public fall from grace in China (+video)

Bo Xilai, a senior Communist Party official, was abruptly dismissed amid scandal, ending his ambition of a top post. His removal could complicate a key year of political transition in China.  

By , Staff writer

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    Bo Xilai, Chongqing party secretary attends the closing session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference held in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, China, Tuesday, March 13.
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Never in recent Chinese history has such a senior Communist Party leader fallen so dramatically and so publicly from grace.

But it was the manner of Bo Xilai’s sudden political demise, rather than the reasons behind it, that augurs the greatest changes for China’s secretive one party rule, say Chinese analysts.

Detailed openly step by step on blogs and on fellow party leaders’ lips, Mr. Bo’s burnout has shattered the carefully cultivated myth of unity at the pinnacle of Chinese power.

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For 20 years, says Peking University politics professor Zhang Jian, “there has been a basic consensus in the party … that factional struggles should never rock the ship. But the way the scandal unfolded and was managed may signal the beginning of the loss of that consensus.”

Bo, until recently a rising star in the political firmament here who clearly had his sights set on one of the nine top posts in the ruling Communist Party, was replaced as party secretary of Chongqing, a mega-city in southwestern China, the official news agency Xinhua announced Thursday. The sacking appeared to put an end to his political ambitions.

His prospects had been dimmed since bloggers revealed five weeks ago – in posts supported by photographs – that Bo’s hand-picked police chief and right-hand man, Wang Lijun, had been escorted by police away from the US consulate in Chengdu.

Whether he went to the consulate seeking asylum or for another purpose has not been disclosed. But rather than blacking out all news of the scandal, local and national officials fed it, announcing first that Mr. Wang was undergoing “vacation style medical treatment” and then revealing that Wang had spent a whole night at the consulate and was under investigation.

President Hu Jintao was widely reported last week as describing Wang as a “traitor,” which bode ill for his mentor, and on Wednesday, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao banged the last nail into Bo’s coffin with some blunt criticism of his political rival at a press conference – an extremely unusual public assault on a fellow leader.

To the eyes of some observers the revelations on Weibo, China’s most popular social media platform, bore the hallmarks of an anti-Bo campaign by his rivals. “Political factions can use Weibo to create and manipulate public opinion,” points out Wu Qiang, who teaches politics at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “Any user can be a deep throat.”

 “The top authorities had the option of deleting all the Weibo posts and ordering the media not to mention Wang Lijun,” adds Professor Zhang. “The fact that they did not means that maybe, as competition has got fierce among the top leadership, there has been a loss of consensus” among them.

Bo Xilai courted controversy

Bo, a member of the 25-strong Politburo of the Communist Party, courted controversy with both the substance of his rule in Chongqing and his personal style.

He made his name with a harsh crackdown on organized crime in Chongqing (entrusted to police chief Wang,) well publicized welfare policies benefiting the poor, a predilection for more state intervention in the local economy and a campaign stirring nostalgia for the days of Mao Zedong with organized sing-alongs of “red songs” from the Mao era.

This approach, which became known as the “Chongqing model” of development, appeared initially to enjoy Beijing’s backing; Chongqing is under direct central government jurisdiction and several top leaders visited Bo’s city in a show of support.

But over time, the widely popular anti-mafia campaign came under closer scrutiny, which prompted charges that it had largely been camouflage for an attack on private businessmen.

“The principal and basic target of the anti-mafia campaign in Chongqing was to weaken and seize private businesses and entrepreneurs and use the profits from this to strengthen state-owned companies and the local budget,” wrote Tong Zhiwei, a professor at Shanghai’s East China University of Political Science and Law, in a report he recently submitted to the central government.

“The most prominent result of the campaign was to strip large numbers of entrepreneurs of their fortunes, their homes, and their families,” he added, in a damning indictment of Bo’s policy.

Victims have claimed they were tortured, and lawyers complained that courts trying suspects ignored legal procedure. Bo’s approach to “strengthening social control came to be seen as authoritarian,” according to Professor Wu.

Bo Xilai's style

At the same time, Bo’s brash and flamboyant political style, often branded populist and overtly ambitious, set him apart from his peers at the top of the party who have all made a virtue of caution and conservatism.

“His personal style, the way he stood out, was the main reason for his failure,” says Zhang. “That really angered a lot of his potential colleagues because nobody knew what he would do if he got onto the Standing Committee of the Politburo” when new members are chosen at the next party congress this autumn.

“What if he launched an anticorruption campaign against them?” his peers must have been wondering, according to Zhang. “He is such an unpredictable figure, and unpredictability is loathed by everyone except him” at the top of the party.

Bo’s dismissal, though, could complicate the succession struggle, as different factions promote their candidates for the next Standing Committee. If Bo had indeed been tapped for one of the seven seats up for grabs, as many believe, “there is now a vacancy,” Zhang points out. “There will be a lot of speculation, campaigning, and bargaining. The struggle at the top will get fiercer than before.” 

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