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Will Bo Xilai affair open the 'black box' of China's leadership?

Just how politician Bo Xilai's stunning fall from grace might modify the mysterious manner in which power is shared and wielded in Beijing is still hard to discern.

By / Staff writer / April 28, 2012



Beijing

The biggest political scandal to break in China for decades has rocked the leadership of the ruling Communist Party and riveted a country unaccustomed to such public drama.

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But just how Bo Xilai's stunning fall from grace might modify the mysterious manner in which power is shared and wielded in Beijing is still hard to discern.

Several months ago, Mr. Bo, the man in charge of the megalopolis of Chongqing in southwestern China, was gunning for one of the top nine slots in the Chinese political hierarchy to be filled at a party congress next autumn.

Today, brought low by scandal spiced with murder, sex, betrayal, and gross corruption, he has been stripped of all his official posts, and is under investigation for "grave disciplinary violations," according to the official state news agency Xinhua.

The scandal is especially mortifying to the authorities because it has not only revealed malfeasance at the highest levels of an officially straitlaced government, but also unveiled factional infighting in a party obsessed with unity in the run-up to a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, when seven of the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party's Politburo will be replaced.

On the heels of the announcement that Bo had been fired and that his wife was suspected of murder came a front-page commentary in the Communist Party organ, The People's Daily, ordering the party's 80 million members to "maintain unity of thought with the central party decision and maintain unity of action with the central party plan."

Subsequently the paper published proclamations of loyalty from provincial party committees, such as Inner Mongolia's pledge to "require party officials to correctly understand and firmly support the central party's decision."

"If they are calling for unity, they clearly feel the need to do so," points out Sidney Rittenberg, a veteran China analyst who was himself for many years a member of the Chinese Communist Party. "Whatever you call for, it means you don't have enough of it."

For the time being, with Bo and his wife in detention, the leadership appears to have restored a measure of surface tranquility to preparations for the 18th party congress. But the fundamental problem – how leaders of the world's most populous nation are chosen – remains unsolved.

From 'princeling' to threat

Bo had powerful supporters at the highest levels of government: He is a "princeling" – the son of one of the "Eight Immortals" who fought alongside Mao Zedong to found the People's Republic. He had an immaculate record as an effective leader as he rose through party ranks, and he had made a national name for himself by spearheading a crackdown on organized crime, launching generous welfare programs, and encouraging a campaign to promote Mao-era "red songs" redolent of a time when social solidarity mattered more than individual success.

His popularity in Chongqing, based on a high-profile Mao-style cult of personality, unnerved many of his peers, who were reluctant to elevate him to the top of the hierarchy. But Bo's standing led him to believe that he could challenge President Hu Jintao's and Premier Wen Jiabao's plans for their succession.

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