China Power

Why Do Some Chinese Still Love Bo Xilai?

Recent Features

China Power

Why Do Some Chinese Still Love Bo Xilai?

Much of Bo’s popularity derives from discontent with governance issues.

According to official Chinese sources, Bo Xilai will soon be prosecuted on charges of bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power. For some ordinary Chinese, however, Bo is considered a victim of a political conspiracy. Many are still sympathetic to the alleged embezzler, and only rarely in China’s history has a single accused individual caused such disruption for the country.

Kong Qingdong, a controversial professor of Peking University who is believed to be a descendent of Confucius, posted a poem to his micro-blog when the Bo Xilai case was made public. The poem was about the weather – rain, thunder, fog, haze, wind and so on – yet many readers interpreted it differently. In particular, a line that translates as the “haze will dispel one day” is thought to suggest that Bo will eventually be shown to have been an innocent victim of politics. Kong is probably the best known supporter of Bo’s Chongqing model, and his attitude towards the scandal reflects the thinking of many of Bo’s current supporters.

I have a friend who is a reporter in Chongqing. He notes that a lot of people there accept that Bo may have been corrupt, but then ask: “Isn’t all of officialdom?” In other words, they do not see corruption as the real reason for his arrest. Before he was apprehended, Bo was already a member of the Central Committee, and one of the 25 most powerful figures in China. If not for serious political differences, it is difficult to imagine that colleagues who had met and joked with him would be so determined to throw him into prison.

It’s not just in Chongqing either. In the coastal city of Dalian, where Bo spent the largest part of his working career, many people think the coming judgment is already preordained. A former classmate in Dalian even told me people are concerned about the city’s future with Bo gone. Dalian residents take delight in talking about the old picture of Bo with a football team in the city celebrating a victory. Under Bo’s governance, Dalian became a “soccer city,” and that is still its calling card even now.

Why are so many Chinese people still so fond of Bo, all the allegations notwithstanding? It’s an intriguing question. The answer has three parts:

First, Bo got things done. He pursued a lot of initiatives that ordinary Chinese found praiseworthy. In addition to establishing Dalian’s image, Bo is best-known for his “red culture” movement and crackdown on crime in Chongqing. He made Chongqing safer, and his Maoist-style campaigns won support from segments of the community. Officials in other provinces went to Chongqing to learn from its experience, and many copied it. Even Henry Kissinger, considered an old friend of the Chinese people, also visited Chongqing, where he publicly praised the campaign.

Second, Bo has the media skills of a Western politician. Compared with conventional Communist Party officials, many people found him to be a breath of fresh air. I had the opportunity to meet Bo a few years ago. Although the exchange was brief, his personal charisma was evident. The then Egyptian Minister of Railways was also visiting Bo, who at the time was the Minister of Commerce. After the meeting, Bo took time to shake hands and chat with the Chinese and foreign reporters present. When my turn came, I found myself calling him “Governor Bo” (he had previously been governor of Liaoning Province). He took the faux pas well, saying with a laugh, “I haven’t had someone call me ‘governor’ for a long time.” A fleeting and insignificant exchange, certainly, but Bo’s reputation for his public relations skills was well founded, and his personal style appealed to many Chinese.

Finally, disappointment with aspects of the Chinese government runs so deep that many people feel sympathy for Bo. If official corruption were not so serious, and if the legal system were more robust, Bo would be unlikely to receive level of support he does. A significant part of the goodwill that Bo enjoys among ordinary Chinese reflects their disappointment in Communist Party governance, deriving from inflated housing prices, social instability, and other issues that Bo had effectively addressed in Chongqing.

The online community in China is abuzz with speculation that Bo may given a life sentence or even put to death. For some, he has become an important symbol to many discontented Chinese, while others think he has become just another corrupt official to add to the list. What do you think?