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Bo’s Ides of March

March 15, 2012

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

Cui bono?

[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)].

21 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2012 1:32 am

    From what I understand, powerful families back the party and it’s this cabal that actually runs the country. Is it possible this is in part a backlash for the crackdown on corruption?

  2. March 16, 2012 2:28 am

    I think he just ruffled too many feathers which made him an easy target to be made an example of.

  3. March 16, 2012 4:58 am

    For sale, going cheap – one red Ferrari…

  4. The Digit Man permalink
    March 16, 2012 8:16 am

    And the techtonic plates of power shift ever so slowly and gradually back to Beijing, and the Party machine exhales a joint (huge) sigh of relief …. their noses are once again deep ‘in the trough’ …. and they all nod in unison – their facial expressions acknowledging, the spoils of victory are best shared amongst ‘insiders’.

  5. Fu Jieshi permalink
    March 16, 2012 12:12 pm

    Chinese friends and colleagues are often dismayed by American politics, which seems so coarse and dysfunctional. By way of a partial defense of the U.S. system (and democracy in general), I often reply that democracies are good at exposing their problems while authoritarian regimes are good at hiding them (i.e., democracies are perhaps less messy than they appear, and authoritarian regime more so). Recent events involving Wang Lijun and Bo Xilai are proof that politics in China is both messy and dangerous. The thin veneer of civility and unanimity that the Party works so hard to preserve has been temporarily peeled back to reveal the contentious, ugly reality. Rough times ahead for China, I think. I’m not predicting collapse or anything of that sort, but I expect that the next 30 years will be far more difficult than the last 30.

    • The Digit Man permalink
      March 19, 2012 7:40 am

      Democrasies have their short-comings Fu, however, the one person one vote rule is very pursuasive – it keeps the politicians as honest as they can be ! I think you’ll find that the next 5 years will be more difficult than the last 30. Its hard to hold back people power once it gets momentum.

  6. Hua Qiao permalink
    March 16, 2012 2:28 pm

    I think your analysis is pretty spot on. The pompous style and ability to rally millions in a populist feeling made the base of the party very uncomfortable. In essence, he got uppity, a grandstander.

    So what was the Wang LiJun affair really all about? We may never know.

    Hu Shuli has a nice article in the South China Morning Post on reform. Here is an excerpt from that article,

    “Reform should break up entrenched vested interests, particularly the most powerful, for whom the current system confers the greatest benefits. Within these, we should focus on the areas related to government power. This point was echoed by many delegates and committee members at the annual meetings. Wang Yang , the party secretary of Guangdong, said if we are to cut away the influence of interest groups to clear the way for reform, the first to “go under the knife” should be the ruling party and the people’s government.”

    Patrick, if you are right about Bo’s rocking the boat, it is hard to imagine that Hu Shuli’s and Wang Yang’s dream of aggressive reform aimed at the very foundations of political and economic power could happen and happen quickly.

    It reminds me of the US’s struggle with its core problem of lobbyists, political action committees and campaign finance.

  7. March 16, 2012 4:17 pm

    Excellent analysis. Question is where will this end…

  8. andao permalink
    March 16, 2012 6:17 pm

    One gem i saw on Weibo (via CDT) was a netizen pointed out Bo graduated from Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, while Zhang Dejiang studied at Kim Il-sung University in North Korea. Therefore, Chongqing is losing a fake leftist and gaining a real one.

  9. Tai permalink
    March 16, 2012 11:09 pm

    What an earthquake. So far, this time’s leadership transition has lived up to its reputation as the most challenging one for China ever.

  10. March 17, 2012 2:11 am

    Excellent article and better informed in parts than my own posts on the Bo Xilai saga.

    Had to laugh at a headline in the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” today; “Sieg der Transparenz” (victory for transparency) …. and the author goes on to write that the Chinese government can no longer ignore corruption.

    Even the most superficial reading of Richard McGregor’s book, “The Party”, would tell us that not only is corruption endemic in the system, but also that transparency would be the end of the party. ….. and on that note, we might read your:
    “And those trends will continue to unfold — for better or worse — with or without Bo Xilai as the Great Helmsman.”

    Today’s article in the ‘Guardian’ by Steve Tsang is, however, good:

  11. princess1960 permalink
    March 20, 2012 10:28 pm

    i read to day something very intristing about KONST/POLI..and i am agree with what there do about christian orthodox..ok and about chine is very intristing ..2/9 % of the people in provice..working very hart..but K MARX is the best economist philosophe an till now..even your new Key liberal ”stol from KM….thank you

  12. Y Kai permalink
    April 4, 2012 12:46 pm

    Summary is right. Nothing, nothing at all new here.


  1. FT Alphaville » The Closer
  2. GIASTAR – Storie di ordinaria tecnologia » Blog Archive » What The Downfall Of Bo Xilai Means For China
  3. “Bo’s Ides of March” | The China Hotline
  4. Bo Xilai: Down, But Out? - China Digital Times (CDT)
  5. FT Alphaville » Further reading
  6. Inflation Accelerates; Dividing Society Benefits Politicians; Oil Policy Has a Different Goal
  7. » End-Of-Week Links: Wen Jiabao, Bo Xilai, Zhang Dejiang, Dolkun Isa Beijing Cream
  8. Bo Xilai the epilogue? « SANSCULOTTISM

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