The dismissal of former rising star Bo Xilai (above) from China’s ruling Communist party leadership and the investigation of his wife for the murder of a British associate have produced “the most tumultuous upheaval in the nation’s leadership in decades.”
The convulsions are also casting fresh doubt over portrayals of the country’s political system as a model of hyper-efficient, consensus-based development and exposing the frailties of its developmental authoritarianism, observers suggest.
The party’s leaders agreed to oust the populist Bo, but they unlikely to reach a consensus on the next steps, said a well-connected Beijing editor.
“In handling this incident, there have been tensions over whether to take a gentler or tougher approach (toward Bo), whether to go slower or faster,” said the editor.
“All sides are committed to stability; nobody wants a public rift over this,” the editor told Reuters. “But the complications will come if, say, Hu tries to take advantage of this incident to take greater control of selecting successors.”
One critic of the government’s handling of Bo, a former official who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “Hu Jintao told everyone not to stir up a fuss, but all this is doing is stirring up a fuss.”
“The real-life murder mystery unfolding at the highest ranks of the Chinese government—featuring, so far, homicide, MI6, poison, Party infighting, and a police chief whose hobby involves organ transplantation—is not only a political opera that makes Berlusconi’s antics look like community theatre,” notes one observer. “It’s also the largest Communist Party convulsion since the arrival of the Web, and the juxtaposition between Party orthodoxy and today’s information culture has laid bare a fault line in the future of ‘enlightened authoritarianism’.”
But it remains to be seen whether Bo’s demise will rebound to the benefit of reformist forces, analysts suggest.
“Bo’s fall should embolden advocates of change who have been putting their heads above the parapets this year” and “elements are emerging that are likely to have a significant bearing on the way the last major state ruled by a Communist Party evolves,” writes Jonathan Fenby, former editor of The South China Morning Post and author of a new book about China, Tiger Head, Snake Tails.
“[A] reformist wind does seem to be blowing, with particular gusts directed at the ‘vested interests — the big state-owned enterprises and those who have done well from three decades of growth,” he notes.
Other observers strike a more cautious note.
“It’s noteworthy that administering the coup de’ grace to Bo took a few weeks,” writes Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based analyst, indicating that the party leadership remains focused on preserving unity and discipline:
Over the weekend, party media took an even sharper tone than usual on the topic of online rumors, calling on cadres to start “upholding the people’s public security” by a stricter supervision of the social media. And this morning, the main editorial in People’s Daily noted that investigation of the Bo Xilai case was “in full compliance with the fundamental requirement of our Party of tightening party discipline” — not exactly words that reek of a need to re-engage the gears of reform.
“And while some within the Party might well delight in the downfall of Bo, an icon of state-driven Leftist politics, reformers need to be careful that they themselves are not the next targets of hardliners convinced that discipline is more important than debate,” he warns.
The authorities have responded to the inner-party turmoil by intensifying censorship efforts, according to the China Digital Times, which lists the following proscribed phrases:
Commission for Discipline Inspection, filed for investigation, investigate, Neil, British businessman, British housekeeper, Bo, Guagua [the son], Chongqing, King of the Southwest, Gu, Kailai, Wang Lijuan [the police chief], head nurse, Energetic Wang, Wang Li jun, wanglijun, WLJ, defect, U.S. consulate, Central Committee, usurp party leadership, political struggle, inner struggle
“There are also more obscure terms being blocked, as censors and commentators battle over the code words people are using to discuss the case,” writes The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos. “An example: Chongqing hotpot = King of the Southwest = King Who Pacifies the West = Minister of Yu = tomato = Bo Xilai. So don’t go looking to talk about tomatoes today. (People still found a way around it, tweeting with the hashtag “big news” to stand in for the Bo case.)”
Despite the headlines, “the Bo affair is, essentially, a sideshow, a distraction from the essential challenges facing China under its changing leadership,” Fenby suggests:
China is gripped by a major environmental crisis and an acute water shortage is building up in the north of the country. Beijing lacks a coherent foreign policy. Corruption is rife. Regulation and safety standards are weak. There is a broad lack of trust in institutions. The falling birth rate and increasing longevity mean that the demographics will shift during this decade so that the People’s Republic may become old before it gets rich.
Materialism has trumped both communism and Confucianism. Tibetan monks and nuns are burning themselves to death to protest Chinese rule, and there are recurrent ethnic clashes in the enormous western territory of Xinjiang.
The affair should prompt more critical reflection on the part of western cheerleaders for China’s supposedly benign authoritarianism, notes Osnos:
In the years after the financial crisis, commentators like Thomas Friedman had become impressed with Chinese governance: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” Today, we’re seeing the limitations of that system in spectacular fashion. Boston University’s Joseph Fewsmith, a watcher of Chinese politics, told the Wall Street Journal,
The real question going forward is whether the new leadership that comes out in the fall can adopt up a reform agenda that answers the questions of the leftist supporters of Bo Xilai—the discontented and left behind. Can the new leaders define a reform agenda that is more inclusive?
“Leninist systems are built on secrecy, on a monopoly on information to prevent the wrong ideas from leading the people down the improper path,” Osnos observes:
Secrecy was easier to maintain during the last Party purge of this scale, in 1971, when Lin Biao, a military leader, died in a mysterious plane crash in Mongolia, after the failure of his purported coup against Chairman Mao. Not this time. After weeks of rumors and dogged foreign reporting, state media had no choice but to announce that Bo Xilai—a rising star and Party Secretary of the megacity Chongqing, who reminds me of Huey Long for his flamboyant, leftist way of wielding authority—has been stripped of his power and detained in an investigation.
“For the leadership to be doing this [dismissing Bo], they must really feel they have no choice,” said Kerry Brown, head of the Asia Program at British think tank Chatham House.
“It is incredibly potentially risky and divisive, happens at the worst possible time, and really throws a spanner in the whole works.”
Check out the round-up from China Digital Times, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy:
The Bo Xilai affair has taken a surprise turn with the dismissal of Bo from his position on the Central Committee and Politburo and the investigation on his wife in the murder of Briton Neil Heywood, who was a close associate of their family. From Reuters:
The decision to banish Bo from the Central Committee and its Politburo effectively ends the career of China’s brashest and most controversial politician, who was widely seen as pressing for a top post in China’s next leadership, to be settled later this year.
The official Xinhua news agency confirmed a Reuters report several hours earlier that Bo had been suspended from his party posts, and separately reported that his wife is suspected in the murder of Briton Neil Heywood.
“Comrade Bo Xilai is suspected of being involved in serious disciplinary violations,” said the news agency said, citing a decision by the central party leadership to suspend Bo from its top ranks.
According to investigation results, Bogu Kailai, wife of Comrade Bo Xilai, and their son were in good terms with Heywood. However, they had conflict over economic interests, which had been intensified.
According to reinvestigation results, the existing evidence indicated that Heywood died of homicide, of which Bogu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun, an orderly at Bo’s home, are highly suspected.
Bogu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun have been transferred to judicial authorities on suspected crime of intentional homicide.
According to senior officials from related authorities, China is a socialist country ruled by law, and the sanctity and authority of law shall not be tramped. Whoever has broken the law will be handled in accordance with law and will not be tolerated, no matter who is involved.
The high-profile case has finally brought an initial conclusion to two months of speculations and rumors. This emergency, starting from former deputy mayor of Chongqing Wang Lijun seeking refuge at the US consulate in Chengdu in February, shows that China has its own resilience. It is not easily disrupted by sudden incidents.
Law is the base to deal with problems at all levels. This is the foundation for China to keep a healthy political structure.
When the Wang Lijun case was disclosed, the government did not cover it up but initiated an investigation accordingly. This is no longer the era where China would rather cover issues up to avoid revealing problems.
The CPC’s decision against Bo highlights that nobody is above the law and discipline in China. Power abuses are not allowed no matter how superior one’s authority is. Local affairs cannot be dominated by an individual’s interests.
UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal’s China Real Times blog reports on the response to the latest developments on China’s social media sites:
“Why does it seem like, throughout Chinese history, behind every colorful man there’s a powerful woman?” asked real-estate executive Mi Ruihong.
TV mega-personality Hung Huang tackled the news from a different angle, writing: “In this country, whenever men do something bad, it’s all the woman’s fault.”
Writer Beicun, meanwhile, took exception to all the excitement: “What does tonight change? Nothing, nothing at all,” he wrote. “Five-thousand years ago through to today, nothing has changed. Power games played over and over again for thousands of years…this culture’s inhumanity is as eternal as death.”
Censors appeared to be working overtime to control the flood of commentary, with Sina Weibo continuing to block searches for Mr. Bo’s and Ms. Gu’s names and engaging in wholesale erasure of comments even on its own official posts.
Read more reactions from netizens via Tea Leaf Nation.
Update 2 (10:00pm PST April 10): China Media Project has published translations of three Xinhua dispatches about today’s events.
CDT has translated a list of keywords that have been banned from Sina Weibo search relating to Bo Xilai, Gu Kailai, and Neil Heywood.
The Los Angeles Times reported from Chongqing on reactions on the street to Bo Xilai’s downfall:
Many academics, lawyers and other intellectuals were happy to see Bo leave. But the party’s campaign against him is unlikely to convince Bo supporters such as the group of retirees swaying recently to Chinese pop music in Chongqing’s People’s Square, a tree-lined swath of red and gray tile sandwiched between an imposing government building and a leafy hillside.
“Ninety-five percent of us common people support Bo. He was a good leader,” said a woman in a red tracksuit. “Now Chongqing people want to take him back.”
“We’re retired now, so we’re not afraid to talk about these things,” said a 59-year-old man who identified himself as Mr. Shi. When two security guards began approaching from the far end of the square, the crowd dispersed.