Bo’s Ides of March
This morning, I had just started writing up a summary of the key takeaways from yesterday’s big press conference by Wen Jiabao, when Xinhua dropped the big bomb: Bo Xilai has been sacked from his post as Party boss of Chongqing, to be replaced by Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang (no word yet on whether Bo will lose his positions on the Party Central Committee and Politburo). Since this is clearly the biggest news to come out of this year’s NPC, and the most dramatic development so far concerning China’s much-anticipated once-in-a-decade leadership transition later this year, I’m going to put my analysis of Wen’s appearance on hold for a day, and offer some thoughts on Bo’s downfall (which as Gady Epstein of The Economist noted, took place fittingly on the Ides of March) and what it might mean.
Bo first rose to international prominence when he served as China’s Commerce Minister from 2004 to 2007, a period of rapid economic growth and foreign investment. Before that, however, he had already attracted national attention as the long-serving mayor of the northeastern port city of Dalian (1993-2001) followed by a bump up to governor of that city’s province, Liaoning (2001-04), where he was widely credited with reviving a rust-belt region that had fallen on hard times. Considered a “prince among princelings” (children of high officials), Bo Xilai is the son of Bo Yibo, one of the “Eight Immortals” — the group of senior revolutionary veterans who served as the backbone of Deng Xiaoping’s support in the 1980s. In 2007, Bo was simultaneously appointed Communist Party Secretary in Chongqing (a position senior to the province’s governor) and a member of the Party’s 24-person national Politburo. Due to his age (he is currently 62), the Chongqing posting was seen as Bo’s last, best shot at propelling himself onto the 9-person Politburo Standing Committee, the pinnacle of political power in China.
Initially, Bo Xilai’s open, charismatic style — in sharp contrast to typically stiff Chinese technocrats — made him something of a darling with the foreign media and foreigners in general (a fact that did not necessarily do him any favors with his Chinese peers). He was perceived as a liberal (in the classical sense), heralding a more accessible and cosmopolitan way of conducting Chinese politics. He was China’s JFK, and Chongqing was his Camelot. Gradually, that perception began to shift. While many in the reform camp welcomed his crackdown on organized crime in Chongqing, they were also dismayed by the heavy-handed, authoritarian methods that were used — more like one gang (Bo’s and/or the Party’s) crushing its rivals than anything resembling “rule of law.” Then came Bo’s “red culture” campaign, with songs and slogans harkening back to Mao and the Cultural Revolution (despite the fact that Bo’s own family suffered greatly at the hands of the Red Guards). This was coupled with an emphasis on state-led investment and populist welfare projects, like state-funded housing, a program that came to be known as the “Chongqing Model.”
All of these developments kept Bo Xilai in the news, and attracted the ardent support of China’s “New Left” movement, including a motley assortment of neo-Maoists. But they alienated the reform camp, who began to see Bo as a dangerous demagogue. President Hu Jintao kept his distance, but his heir apparent, Xi Jinping, paid a visit to Chongqing where he appeared to bestow his public blessing on Bo’s endeavors. The betting, going into this year, was that Bo had a very good chance of making it onto the next Politburo Standing Committee, if only to keep him from making trouble.
In events such as today’s, the temptation is to look solely at the proximate (or immediate) cause. The proximate cause of Bo’s downfall was last month’s “Wang Lijun Incident,” where a top lieutenant of Bo’s, apparently under corruption investigation, sought refuge in the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu (near Chongqing, in southwest China) before leaving the consulate and being placed under arrest. The exact circumstances, and the extent of Bo’s involvement, still remain something of a mystery. But the important thing is, the incident cast a shadow on Bo, and that shadow fell on already fertile ground. Whatever the real truth of the incident, it became a weapon in the hands of his enemies. The real cause of Bo’s downfall were the distrust and resentment that gave rise to so many enemies.
And those enemies were powerful. It’s no coincidence that just days after the Wang Lijun Incident, prominent Chinese academics were coming out publicly, saying that Bo Xilai’s career and the entire “Chongqing Model” were finished — they wouldn’t have blast such a senior Party leader, a Politburo member, without protection and encouragement from very high up. It’s no coincidence, either, that He Guoqiang, the man in charge of internal Party discipline, greeted the Chongqing NPC delegation with a warning that “the current weather in Chongqing is very different from that in Beijing” and urged them to “mind their own health.”
So why did Bo make so many powerful enemies? I was pondering this question last night, as I was riding the Beijing subway home from appearing on CCTV News’ Dialogue show. Chatting off-camera, the group of well-informed Chinese experts who had gathered to comment on the close of the NPC were virtually unanimous in their belief — before today’s news was announced — that Bo was a cooked goose, his political career over. On the way home, I had my copy of Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes, the excellent new book by my friend James Palmer, about the Tangshan earthquake and the death of Mao in 1976, and had just reached the part where Mao’s immediate successor, Hua Guofeng, organizes a secret plot to arrest and neutralize the ultra-left-wing Gang of Four, led by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. Palmer notes that one reason the plot succeeded, and even leftist allies were quick to abandon Jiang, boiled down to personality. “In the small world of Chinese elite politics,” Palmer writes, “personality mattered.” Jiang Qing was an irritating person, and she was a woman. Either one made it highly desirable to be rid of her.
Clearly the liberal reform camp came to dislike Bo because they saw him as a demagogue and opposed the direction of his populist, statist economic policies. Critics pointed to hints of corruption, such as Bo’s son driving a red Ferrari. But for every liberal Bo alienated, he won (or bought) the devoted support of academics and activists on the New Left. And let’s face it — there are hundreds if not thousands of Chinese officials, a lot less powerful than Bo, with kids driving fancy sports cars they should never be able to afford (and occasionally running people over with them).
Bo’s real problem wasn’t liberal critics or sports cars or even turncoat lieutenants — although these became convenient nails in his coffin. Plenty of Chinese officials, snug in their patronage networks, have survived (or even shrugged off) far worse. The Party takes care of its own. But top Party leaders, regardless of political philosophy, had come to dislike Bo, not as a person per se — by all accounts, Bo is an extraordinarily charming man — but as a political persona, at least in his Chongqing incarnation, for three reasons:
First, they were offended by his courting of the media and his vigorous self-promotion, which showed a lack of appropriate deference and humility to established power channels and ways of resolving competition. Second, they felt threatened, because few of them were equipped to compete on this basis, if that’s what it took. Third, they were alarmed by Bo’s tactic of “mobilizing the masses” in ways that explicitly invoked the Cultural Revolution, which called up deep-seated fears that populist fervor could be used as a weapon against rival leaders within the Party — as indeed happened during the Cultural Revolution, to horrific results.
Earlier on Twitter, I asked “Cui bono? We know Bo Xilai lost, but who won? Who is Bo’s downfall a victory for?” The temptation is to say it’s a victory for the liberal reform camp since (as we’ve frequently heard say) Bo’s end spells the end of the Chongqing Model. I’m not so sure. In one sense, the Chongqing Model (including the “red culture” campaigns) was first and foremost a political vehicle for Bo Xilai to draw attention and support for his bid for the Standing Committee. In this respect, yes, it’s probably toast — and I suspect some of Bo’s pet projects (like Chongqing’s ambitious social housing scheme) will come under greater scrutiny and criticism in the days ahead, much as High-Speed Rail did in the wake of Liu Zhijun’s sacking last year.
But Bo’s “Chongqing Model” had the impact (and political benefit) that it did in large part because it tapped into trends that have much deeper roots and/or broader appeal than Bo himself. In the wake of China’s stimulus, the larger role of the state sector has made “guo jin min tui” (the state advances, the private sector retreats) a common refrain all across China, not just in Chongqing. President Hu (no friend of Bo’s) long ago defined social welfare and more even distribution of wealth as prominent themes during his term of office. These things didn’t start with Bo; in many respects, he just jumped on the bandwagon.
Take “social” (i.e., state-provided) housing. Putting Bo entirely aside for a moment, it seems the entire real estate industry in China, as well as markets in Hong Kong and around the world, are pinning huge hopes on the premise that massive Chinese government investment in “social housing” will be their salvation, countering an inevitable — and potentially dramatic — downturn in private housing construction this year. They need it to keep developers from going bust, and to keep GDP high. I think it’s a horrible idea, possibly a gigantic waste of resources and more likely a forlorn hope that won’t actually accomplish much. But the point is, its appeal has nothing to do with Bo Xilai’s political fate, even if he has made Chongqing the poster child of the effort.
If Chongqing were some kind of unique experiment, then the downfall of Bo Xilai might matter. But it isn’t. Like Ordos, or Hainan, or Wukan, or Wenzhou (the train crash or the financial crisis), it is an unusually pure instance of far broader trends that are prevalent, in more or less diluted form, all across China. And those trends will continue to unfold — for better or worse — with or without Bo Xilai as the Great Helmsman.
And with that, some final words, inspired by another ambitious man, brought down on the Ides of March:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
- William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2
[For those who just can't get enough of Bo, or are big fans of karaoke, check out "The Ballad of Bo Xilai" on Youtube (courtesy of Tania Branigan of The Guardian, via Twitter). The English lyrics are here. Strangely similar to the theme song from Wyatt Earp (a 1950s TV show about a sheriff in the Wild West)].