Many of my friends have asked me what I think happened to Bo Xilai, the rising political star who was fired as Communist Party Chief of Chongqing? To be honest, I’m not sure either. The authorities have so far failed to make a proper statement explaining the move, which has left people guessing, and inevitably created space for rumors to circulate. With social media often faster these days than mainstream media in spreading news, Beijing is increasingly being dubbed the “kingdom of rumors.”
So, what do we know? Very little for sure. Bo was removed from office on March 16. About two days later, there were posts on Weibo (China’s version of twitter) suggesting that military vehicles were stationed on Chang’an Avenue (Beijing’s longest street), and that civilian vehicles were being stopped from using it. This led to speculation that a coup had occurred in Beijing. Such posts were quickly forwarded to the point that I was getting questions about what was going on in Beijing even from people not particularly interested in politics.
Other microblogging sites were even more outrageous. Some said that gunshots were heard during the evening of March 19 from Zhongnanhai, where the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee is located. One popular post went as far as to say that a member of the Politburo had been shot, probably by Bo (for the record, the person supposedly killed appeared live on a CCTV program not long after the alleged incident). Still, the rumors continued, with many suggesting they could have at least a little credibility as any society is prone to some sort of conflict.
So why all the fuss over Bo who was, after all, only Chongqing party secretary? For a start, he held significant authority as a so-called princeling (the term for children of senior Communist Party officials). In addition, Bo had made a name for himself with his populist policies, including working to provide affordable health care and housing, and cracking down on corruption. Such moves had made him extremely popular among the party’s grassroots, so his sudden firing took the public by surprise.
Regardless, the incident – and the talk of conflict between reformers and traditionalists in the Party – is a reminder of the deep divisions in Chinese society. Such tensions can be traced back to China’s reforms and opening up of the country 30 years ago. The pursuit of rapid economic growth regardless of the negative consequences has created an unhealthy development model which, coupled with corruption and a lack of political supervision, has left many yearning for the Mao era. And Bo himself did his best to evoke memories of a more politically stable past. This meant that many have been left scratching their heads over why a “good” guy has been fired.
The speed with which the rumors about Bo’s firing spread certainly seem to have taken the government by surprise. The Global Times argued in an editorial that the central government needed to announce how Bo’s sacking came about. However, the central government responded by saying that it was determined to find those responsible for sending the messages in the first place.
On March 16, it became compulsory to provide details from an ID card and a cell phone number when registering at microblogging sites. Meanwhile, China’s largest microblog sites, including Sina.com, were offline for three days, sparking more fevered debate online about what was going on.
The government is making a rod for its own back.