Features | Politics | East Asia

Do China’s Communists Face a Yeltsin?

The open ambitions of rising political star Bo Xilai were partly responsible for his fall. But the frustrations that fueled his popularity could come back to haunt the Party.

The fall of Bo Xilai, until recently the Communist Party chief of Chongqing and a leading contender for a seat on the party’s next Politburo Standing Committee, may have shocked many, but it shouldn’t. The writing was already on the wall a month ago when Bo’s right-hand man, Chongqing’s police chief, apparently sought political asylum in the American consulate in Chengdu (and presumably gave the Americans invaluable information on a wide range of sensitive subjects). Although Bo himself kept a brave face and went about his business as usual, his political rivals were already busy plotting the least disruptive way of easing him out of power.

In retrospect, Bo’s sudden political demise may seem inevitable. But the reason most often cited for his fall – his leftist-leaning Maoist revival ideological campaign – was probably only a secondary cause. To be sure, Bo’s “singing red and striking black” campaign recalled the worst aspects of the dreaded Maoist rule – leftist populism, personality cult, and political terror. Yet, for a few years, nobody lifted a finger to stop him. On the contrary, most sitting members of the Politburo Standing Committee visited Chongqing to endorse the so-called “Chongqing Model,” boosting Bo’s political stock.

What finally did Bo in was a combination of two factors, one political and the other accidental. 

On the political front, the most critical cause was the fear and revulsion Bo’s ambition and style struck among his peers in the Communist Party hierarchy. Through his populist tactics and unabashed public campaign for a top leadership position, Bo broke several important taboos. A cardinal rule governing the behavior of Chinese elites is political modesty and restraint. “A nail sticking out gets hammered back in” still applies. Even inside the top hierarchy of the party leadership, self-promotion for a top leadership is seen as vulgar. Because in the Chinese system only the party can confer power and prestige, any individual who aggressively seeks it, however well-connected he may be, is bound to frighten and alienate his comrades. Ironically, the higher such an individual rises, the harder he falls. Thus, as Bo seemed to have gained an advantage in the leadership race, his rivals struck back. They had to – if they wanted to prevent a Mao-like figure from ascending to the top. Because membership on the Politburo Standing Committee confers practical political immunity, Bo had to be stopped before it was too late.

The accidental factor was the bizarre episode involving Bo’s right-hand man, Wang Lijun, the former police chief.  Wang’s attempt to seek political asylum inside the American consulate really sealed Bo’s fate. In announcing Bo’s dismissal, the party’s organization chief mentioned only one thing: Bo’s culpability in Wang’s attempted defection. Aside from the secrets he must have given the Americans in the hope of gaining protection, Wang, a vice minister level official, brought immense shame to the party. The incident may even be compared to the infamous “9/13 incident,” the attempted defection to the Soviet Union by Mao Zedong’s anointed successor, Lin Biao, in September 1971.

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Had Wang not forced the top leaders’ hands by exposing the rift inside the top leadership, Bo’s exit from power could have been more graceful.  He would have retained his Chongqing position until the party congress in the fall and then fade away into a comfortable retirement.

Now that Bo is history, the party has to move on.

Obviously, the shortlist for the next Politburo Standing Committee has to be redrawn.  In all likelihood, Bo’s elimination from the race should make the process less contentious and may help produce a more “harmonious” new leadership team. However, the damage to the party’s prestige by this episode is incalculable. Since the Tiananmen crackdown in June 1989, the party has worked hard to maintain a façade of unity within the top leadership. A key lesson drawn by the party from the Tiananmen catastrophe was that political infighting among top leaders emboldened pro-democracy protesters and paralyzed the party’s decision-making process. Splits within the leadership must be avoided at all cost. The Bo incident shows that the divisions within the party are real and deep.  At the moment, it’s unclear what Bo’s friends and backers will do, but they surely must not have been very happy with this dramatic turn of events. An intriguing question is whether Bo and his supporters have enough staying power to make a comeback during a future political crisis and take on the Party. Could Bo turn into a Chinese Boris – Boris Yeltsin, that is?

More importantly, Bo’s departure from the political scene has clarified the strategic choices facing the party. Had Bo succeeded in getting a coveted spot on the Politburo Standing Committee, the leftist-populist elements in the party and Chinese society might have a representative advocating their cause (whether Bo would do so is an entirely different matter). With Bo gone, the party’s new leadership will have to pick one of the two paths that now lay ahead. One is to stay the course, maintaining one-party rule and trying to sustain economic growth under the state-capitalist model. The other is to revive reform, not just economic reform but also democratization.

The first path seems increasingly untenable. One reason Bo’s leftist populism had so much appeal was not that ordinary Chinese people were yearning for a return to the dark Maoist era, but that they were fed up with the status quo. Bo’s political antics struck a powerful populist chord because he learned how to exploit the pent-up social frustrations generated by the current political system. If the party’s new leadership doesn’t alter the country’s present course, such frustrations will continue to grow and create opportunities for ambitious politicians like Bo to exploit in seeking power. The difference is, of course, when such opportunities occur in the future, people like Bo could be leading a radicalized opposition with mass popular followings – a nightmarish scenario the Communist Party should do everything to avoid.