Bo Xilai's Hollywood Campaign

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Bo Xilai, the party secretary of Chongqing and China’s only celebrity politician, is trying to convert his record in office into a “Godfather-style” media franchise, the New York Times reported this week.  Based on the 2009 gang trials launched shortly after Bo took office in Chongqing, the paper reported that a four-volume popular history is close to publication, and city officials are currently auditioning major Chinese directors to make a film adaptation and TV series.

This is more evidence for the argument that Bo may be trying to force his way into China’s ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee, with a popular campaign for office unprecedented in the one-party state.  It’s as though Barack Obama had released a Hollywood adaptation of Dreams of my Father, except that it’s in a country where it is illegal to campaign for office.

The Times spoke to Huang Jiren, author of a volume focusing on the corrupt police chief who was executed during the trials. He described the book, which Chinese media describe as a historical novel commemorating the trials, as an extraordinarily bold stroke of self-promotion and a challenge to powerful vested interests. The article noted:

In an interview in Chongqing last month, Mr. Huang said: “Bo Xilai wants to record who was holding the umbrellas” – providing political protection – “for the mafia.”

“It was officials,” said Mr. Huang.

Mr. Huang’s contribution focuses on Mr. Wen and is titled “A Spent Arrow,” from a Chinese saying about how even the strongest arrow must eventually fall from the sky.

Mr. Huang said that Mr. Wang [Lijun a new police chief brought to Chongqing by Bo Xilai] told him that city leaders knew the rot did not stop at Chongqing. “He said, ‘This anti-mafia campaign is only a first phase. We haven’t entered the deep waters yet.”’…

Mr. Wang laid down strict guidelines for the authors of “The Chongqing Anti-Mafia Campaign Series.”

“Don’t make Wen Qiang out to be all bad,” he told Mr. Huang. Objectivity and fairness were essential, because “only the truth has authority.”

The writers were given access to any suspect they wanted, and to any file, many stamped “Top Secret.” The book was to be written with an eye to posterity, and only objectivity and truth could ensure that, Mr. Wang said.

Corruption is certainly not an off-limits topic in Chinese politics. These days, top leaders routinely raise the issue in speeches, and the 2009 Chongqing trials weren’t especially politically dangerous – they were a purely local affair, while investigators in cases like the Chen Liangyu and Lai Changxing scandals reached officials at the ministerial level, requiring backing from powerful people in Beijing.

But, if the Times has described the coming series accurately, Bo has gone a step farther in a dangerous direction. Major corruption cases are often prosecuted harshly, but discussion is quickly hushed up and turned away from systemic failures within the Communist Party. By directing Huang to focus on the role of officials and opening secret archives, Bo has taken a major step away from the Party’s ordinary damage control methods – and departed from the President Hu Jintao pattern of modest deference to collective decision-making. While talking frankly about official corruption seems like a sure bet for making outspoken Chinese bloggers into Bo fans, taking on the Party’s problems independently is a terrible way to make friends at the top.

Bo is nearing the strictly-enforced retirement age for Chinese leaders, so this bid for popular support is his last chance to make it onto the Standing Committee. We’ll find out during the Party Congress in October whether populist appeals borrowed from a democratic playbook have become viable ways to gain office in China.

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