New Leaders Forum

China and Political Rock Stars

What the rise of populist Bo Xilai might say about China’s politics, nationalism and future foreign policy making.

By Matt Anderson for

Much has been written about the upcoming Chinese leadership transition at the 18th Communist Party National Congress in 2012, and the political jockeying for promotions that’s preceding it. Most of this commentary is inevitably based on speculation, since the Chinese political system is notoriously opaque. Chinese politics eschews transparency about how decisions are made, meaning it’s hard to determine what factors really play into deciding who will take the top spots in the next leadership roster. 

There are many attributes thought to increase a cadre’s viability for a leadership position, but popular appeal isn’t usually seen as one of them. China watchers believe that since the excesses of Mao, the Communist Party has disliked individuals who garner too much public attention. Fear of another demagogue that could go outside of Party channels for policy formulation and implementation has produced somewhat introverted Chinese leaders, epitomized by the aloof current president, Hu Jintao. These modest functionaries are credited with steering China toward impressive growth and increased international prominence. So why change? 

While official political reform appears to be stalled, and unlikely to move forward before the 18th Party Congress, there are signs of change outside of the tight strictures of the Party. Bo Xilai, Chongqing’s media-savvy party secretary, is making an unconventional bid for the top Chinese decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), by building a strong public image.  If successful, Bo’s public campaign for a PBSC seat could have profound implications for China’s politics and foreign policy. 

Bo has made a name for himself by addressing salient topics like corruption and affordable housing. These initiatives aren’t inherently new, as other officials have initiated campaigns to address these problems.  What’s different is Bo’s choice to pursue his policies so publicly.  Additionally, his public campaigns promoting neo-Maoist ideals have made him well known within China. 

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Some speculate that Bo’s rising public profile has created resentment among his more traditional cadres, who prefer behind-the-scenes political dealings. Following the 17th Party Congress in 2007, Bo was thought to have only an outside chance for promotion to the PBSC.  Now, with just over a year before the next Party Congress, many believe that Bo will very likely be on the next PBSC.  This could be because of his effective governing of Chongqing which, even when compared to the rest of China’s staggering economic achievements, has enjoyed remarkable growth. He has also appealed to the more conservative elements within the Party, as well as average citizens who miss the more egalitarian days of Communist China through his promotions of Maoist slogans. Or it could be due to his royal lineage in the Party and the rise of the princeling faction

These factors may all allow for Bo to be promoted despite his public campaigning rather than because of it. However, in such an opaque political environment, perception can be reality, and there’s an alternative narrative that Bo’s public profile is what forced China’s faceless bureaucrats to concede a seat on the PBSC or else make a powerful enemy out of a man of the people. If Bo does secure a seat on the PBSC next year, what will this mean for Chinese politics? If the notion that Bo earned his PBSC seat because of his popularity with the masses gains traction, then future cadres may see public appeal as a path for promotion, and so be inclined to conduct their own publicity campaigns. 

How could these domestic developments affect the country’s foreign policy? China’s foreign policy has often been characterized from the outside as being formulated by a pragmatic leadership insulated from popular opinion. If Chinese policymakers are forced to be more responsive to the broader population, foreign policy will inevitably be influenced. Nationalism has increased in China’s traditional media and its vibrant online community. Some attribute this to a conscious decision by the Party to stoke nationalist sentiment in order to compensate for the discrediting of its traditional ideologies. Regardless of the cause, it appears that the rising nationalist mood is starting to exceed the Party’s comfort level. China’s netizens actively look for slights to China from foreigners, and are increasingly impatient with leaders seen as failing to firmly defend China’s international interests. 

As a result of all this, if future leaders feel that they need to appeal to the masses in order to further their careers, then they’ll find it increasingly difficult to pursue pragmatic foreign policies out of fear of offending nationalist sentiment. There will be immense pressure to appease the nationalist impulses of the masses, pressure that could prod policymakers toward taking more hawkish positions, and shunning compromise out of fear of being labelled traitors to the country’s interests.

Matt Anderson is a Resident Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS.