As details leak out, it appears that corruption will play a central role in the saga of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai. Bo, who was summarily ousted from his position on March 15, apparently attempted to derail the investigation of his police chief, Wang Lijun, into corrupt practices by Bo’s family members.
Yet corruption is hardly enough of a reason to scrap one of the country’s most senior and well-known leaders. Scratch the surface of almost any senior official in China and a family member or two will likely have crossed a law or two. Bo’s sins ran much deeper. The dramatic and charismatic Bo was simply too big a personality in a leadership that prides itself on facelessness and colorlessness. And his politics were too disruptive and, in the end, corrosive for a political system that prizes least common denominator consensus.
Between Vice President Xi Jinping and Premier Wen Jiabao, the Chinese leadership signaled Bo’s demise well before his formal ouster. Xi attacked Bo’s political character in a March 1 speech before the Communist Party School, and then in an essay published two weeks later. In his speech, Xi noted that leading officials should “fairly use their power, keep incorrupt [sic] in their work, and resolutely oppose the tendencies of …hedonism, and extreme individualism.” The article made things even more explicit, raising the dangers of self-promotion and seeking personal fame through the Party.
Bo’s political proclivities also ran afoul of China’s top leaders. Bo brought Mao Zedong back to life with grand-scale mobilization campaigns to root out corruption and plant trees, as well as singing “red” songs. While popular among some segments of Chongqing’s population, for others – including some within China’s most senior leadership – Bo’s red reminiscing put a positive spin on one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history. Wen took center stage on the last day of last week’s National People’s Congress in rejecting Bo’s revisionist tendencies: “Without successful political structural reform, it’s impossible for us to fully institute economic structural reform…China risks another historical tragedy like the Cultural Revolution unless it enacts political reforms.”
Where does this leave politics in China? Certainly Chongqing is getting the short end of the stick. Bo led Chongqing to 16 percent growth in 2011. Little about his replacement, Zhang Dejiang, suggests that such a performance will be repeated. Zhang, one of the most faceless, colorless members of the Politburo, received his university economics training in North Korea. He served an embarrassing stint as Guangdong Party Secretary during the SARS outbreak and, most recently, held oversight responsibility for China’s high speed rail, a story of mixed success at best.
The broader Chinese public is divided on the merits of Bo’s ouster. Despite Weibo’s blocking of Bo Xilai’s name, Chinese voices on the Internet have gone wild. Some decry Bo’s departure: “Bo Xilai leaves, the masses cry. The dream of common prosperity is shattered! Corrupt officials laugh, they can keep squeezing the masses and extorting their money.” Others have taken up Wen’s call: “Now it is the 21st century. 1.3 billion Chinese people have entered the modern era…yet unexpectedly people are still crying out for a savior, for a good emperor. What we need is exactly as premier Wen said. We need to wake up! We need a good system not a good man. We need rule of law not rule of man. We need openness and transparency! Do you agree?”
In Beijing itself, political life is in flux. Bo is in limbo – deprived of his position in Chongqing but not of his seat on the Politburo. It appears to be a real victory for the more reform-oriented officials within China’s senior leadership, but whether they can capitalize on it over the next six months by ensuring that the next Standing Committee looks more like Wen and less like Wu Bangguo remains to be seen. In the near term, however, they must be busy struggling to develop a politically viable narrative to explain Bo’s downfall. Based on the voices of the people, the truth would be a good place to start.
Elizabeth C. Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations and author of the award-winning book, 'The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future.' She blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.