Bo Xilai’s race to win a seat on China’s highest political body, the Politburo Standing Committee, has been the focus of much foreign media attention over the past year. Bo’s politics and personality have also been the subject of intense discussion within China itself. Many, reportedly including some in central government as well as members of the general public, are alarmed by the focus of Bo’s political campaigns, which stress the role of the state in the economy and the revival of “red culture”, moves that strike many as reminiscent of China’s Cultural Revolution. As a researcher at a major Chinese state owned enterprise told me bluntly, “what Bo’s doing in Chongqing is really scary.” However, others – especially members of China’s so-called new left – have viewed Bo’s policies as a needed rectification of what they see as China’s excessive embrace of the market in recent decades.
What has struck me in recent trips to two of the cities where Bo advanced his political career, Chongqing in southwest China and Dalian in northeast China, however, is the genuine popularity his policies seem to have won him among the public in both cities. While there’s much to question about Bo’s contribution, especially in Chongqing where the economic success of the city seems to have more to do with central government subsidies and the ongoing move of heavy industry away from China’s coastal provinces, Bo has certainly been remarkably successful at constructing a popular political agenda that is associated with his name, and winning genuine public respect as a result.
In a trip to Chongqing in October, I spoke with dozens of ordinary residents from a wide range of backgrounds about the city’s development. Bo’s popularity seemed almost universal, although it appeared to have very little to do with his “red culture” campaign. Rather, Bo’s ability to build up a strong constituency of public support for himself in the city seems to be related to his crime-fighting campaign, which has raised eyebrows on the part of many for the arrest, quick trials, and executions of numerous suspected leaders of organized crime in Chongqing. Nearly everyone you ask about Bo’s record in the city comments on his achievements at improving public order.
Bo’s policies have involved a huge beefing up of the city’s security apparatus – police are remarkably widespread across the city – as well as high-tech solutions to security problems, most notably with massive networks of surveillance cameras across the city.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of Bo’s campaign, it appears to have been hugely popular and successful at improving safety on Chongqing’s streets. As one taxi driver told me, “I used to be scared to go out at night because we always heard about stabbings of taxi drivers. Now it’s no problem. It’s completely different.”
Asking people in Dalian about Bo, where he was mayor from 1992 to 2001, produces remarkably similar responses. Bo seems to be associated there with raising the city’s profile and cleaning it up. “Bo Xilai is really good,” one man told me. “No one knew about Dalian before him, but Bo Xilai increased its fame.”
Bo’s trademark policy in the city seems to have been his environmental campaign, which included the creation of green spaces in the city and reducing the use of coal for heating in order to improve air quality. Even people too young to remember Bo’s tenure seem to know about his environmental policies. “I was really young when he was in office,” a shop assistant in a Dalian shopping center told me, “but everyone says he was really good, particularly at protecting the environment.”
Indeed, Bo seems to have been able to associate himself with a general lifting in Dalian’s status, even in ways that his policies can hardly plausibly take credit for. As one man told me, “Dalian’s football team was really great when Bo Xilai was in power, but it’s not been as good since.”
In fact, most of those I spoke to in Dalian were quick to criticize the current city administration, saying that it can’t compare with Bo Xilai’s time in office. The key here seems to me that Bo wasn’t only able to pursue a set of policies that were popular with the public in Dalian, but that he was able to communicate a message about the purpose and meaning of his term in office, the modernization of Dalian and the raising of its status, which has endured even when many fail to recollect the particular policies he enacted.
What’s interesting about Bo as a figure in Chinese politics is that he’s a true public politician in a country governed by stale technocrats. Bo knows how to make a speech and he knows how to put together public campaigns to bolster his popularity. At a time when the CCP is deeply concerned about connecting with Chinese citizens, the party may hope to harness his dynamism and campaigning abilities to bolster its own legitimacy.
But there are also huge risks associated with Bo’s promotion. Nationally, Bo is a controversial figure and in many ways a political liability, both personally and politically. Politically, he is prone to grandstanding and seems too keen to stress his personal profile in a system which, since Deng Xiaoping’s exit from China’s political stage, has stressed collective decision-making and consensus over personality and division. This is more than just a matter of style: China’s leaders see public unity as absolutely essential to maintaining power and avoiding a repeat of the leadership splits that contributed to the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. Also, Bo’s espousal of red rhetoric conflict strikes many as cynical and self-serving. It also contrasts especially strongly with the flamboyant behavior of Bo’s son, Bo Guagua.
Regardless, Bo is a rare entity in Chinese politics. He’s a dynamic and charismatic figure capable of executing effective political campaigns and a generating genuine public enthusiasm. There’s no doubt that he has the potential to be a huge liability, but in a political system that many inside and outside of China see as increasingly outdated and unresponsive, China’s leadership may well decide that Bo’s promotion is a risk worth taking.