Chinese princeling loses his
fiefdom By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - When news broke last Thursday
that China's most bold, charismatic and ambitious
politician had fallen from grace, the message to
the increasingly dissatisfied leftist wing of the
Communist Party was clear: China will continue to
move forward with economic and political reform,
not backward toward the dark days of Mao Zedong
and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
years, leftists and reformers have been engaged in
a largely behind-the-scenes battle for the soul of
the party. The unceremonious firing on March 15 of
Bo Xilai as party chief of the sprawling
southwestern municipality of Chongqing represents
a humiliating public rebuke not only to Bo but
also to all those party members who - unsettled by
China's naked materialism and growing wealth gap
and social divisions - wax nostalgic for Mao
and the lost communist
ideal of economic equality and social justice for
Bo's fall, however, was not just the
result of an ideological battle; his populist, at
times downright demagogic style was arguably a
bigger worry for party leaders than his politics,
and his status as a member of the "princeling"
class of Chinese leaders - those whose fathers
also held high positions in the party - rubbed
many the wrong way.
Bo, 62, joins former
Shanghai party secretary Chen Liangyu as only the
second member of the ruling, 25-member Politburo
to be purged during the nine-year reign of
President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao,
although Chen was jailed for corruption and Bo,
for now anyway, has escaped criminal charges and
continues to serve on the Politburo.
five controversial, high-profile years in
Chongqing, Bo was replaced by Vice-Premier Zhang
Dejiang. Zhang, 65, who has also served as party
chief in three provinces - Jilin, Zhejiang and
Guangdong - earned a degree in economics from Kim
Il-sung University in North Korea and, like Bo, is
known as a conservative. His personal style,
however, is far more subdued than Bo's brash
In the end, while Bo's
larger-than-life personality and unabashed
chutzpah may have brought him down, the Chongqing
leadership model that he championed has come
crashing to the floor along with him.
now, at least, it appears reformers have been
given a green light. It is no mere coincidence
that well-known leftist websites such as Utopia
(wyzxsx.com) and Maoflag.net have been shut down
for "maintenance" since the day Bo was fired. But
it's hard to say how the complicated Bo narrative
will ultimately play out ahead of this year's
once-in-a-decade leadership change.
former minister of commerce and governor of
Liaoning province, Bo hoped to ride his reputation
as a crime-buster in Chongqing to win a place on
the all-powerful, nine-member Politburo Standing
Committee at next autumn's 18th party congress.
By most accounts, Bo's anti-triad campaign
in Chongqing - spearheaded by his hand-picked
police chief, Wang Lijun - was highly effective,
jailing hundreds of mafia bosses and their minions
along with more than 1,000 corrupt officials who
protected them and leaving the municipality a far
cleaner, better place.
Chongqing crime sweep may have paid scant
attention to legal due process, extracted
confessions through torture and jailed lawyers who
dared to defend the accused, but it also won him
rock-star national acclaim and vaulted him into
the running for a seat on the elite Standing
Bo's star began to sink on
February 6, however, when, after being removed
from his job as police chief, Wang reportedly
abandoned all loyalty to his boss and traveled to
the US Consulate in Sichuan province's capital
city Chengdu to request asylum, which was not
granted. After leaving the consulate, Wang was
seized by authorities and placed on indefinite
"stress leave". He has not been heard from since.
Wang's case is currently under
investigation and may ultimately bring to light
damaging evidence against Bo. In addition, it may
bring down a close Bo ally, Chongqing Mayor Huang
Qifan, and see the further rise of Guan Haixiang,
a confederate of Hu and the man chosen to replace
Wang as head of police.
alleged defection attempt, Bo's tenure in
Chongqing was also marked by his enthusiasm for
mass Maoist-style campaigns to revive the most
famous quotations from the Great Helmsman's Little
Red Book as well as the revolutionary songs and
spirit that characterized his 27-year rule.
Indeed, before the 60th anniversary of the
People's Republic of China in 2009, Bo sent out
patriotic Mao quotes as text messages to
Chongqing's 13 million mobile-phone users.
Bo's penchant for "red culture" was
clearly on Wen's mind during his final press
conference as premier at the conclusion of the
annual plenum of the National People's Congress
last week in Beijing. While he did not mention Bo
by name, it was apparent that Wen had the maverick
Chongqing leader in his sights when he warned
that, without further economic and political
reform, China could face another Cultural
Revolution - the disastrous 1966-76 purge under
Mao that killed hundreds of thousands and landed
reformers in harsh re-education camps.
"Now reforms in China have come to a
critical stage," Wen said. "Without a successful
political reform, it's impossible for China to
institute economic reform fully, and the gains we
have made in these areas may be lost, new problems
that popped up in the Chinese society will not be
fundamentally resolved and such historical
tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen
again in China."
With Bo's Chongqing
antics no doubt in his thoughts, Wen added: "Each
party member and cadre should feel a sense of
On the Wang affair, the premier
was equally stern and even more direct: "The
current party committee and government of
Chongqing must seriously reflect upon and learn
lessons from the Wang Lijun incident. We will give
the people the results of the investigation ... so
that it can withstand the test of law and
Wen's remarks provided a rare
example of a Chinese leader publicly rebuking a
fellow Politburo member. Not surprisingly, a day
later, the official Xinhua News Agency announced
Bo's removal as Chongqing party chief.
With Bo - who, until Wang's fateful visit
to the US Consulate in Chengdu, was seen as a
front-runner for a place on the Standing Committee
- now out of the picture, jockeying among senior
party leaders to become one of China's nine most
powerful men will only intensify.
Standing Committee places are already filled by
Vice-President Xi Jinping, who is expected to
succeed Hu as president, and Vice-Premier Li
Keqiang, who is considered Wen's likely successor.
That leaves seven openings and, according to most
analysts, nine probable Politburo contenders, five
of whom appear to have an inside track.
While reading Politburo tea leaves is at
best an inexact science, such calculations leave
two seats up for grabs.
congresses appear to have established an unspoken
rule that only Politburo members aged 67 and
younger may be promoted to the Standing Committee
while others must retire. This narrows the field,
although it is also possible that party leaders
who are not on the Politburo but have nonetheless
managed to distinguish themselves could be
After all, Xi and Li were not
Politburo members when they were appointed to the
Standing Committee in 2007.
Wang Yang of Guangdong, Zhang Gaoli of the
municipality of Tianjin and Yu Zhengsheng of
Shanghai, Bo was once one of four party chiefs
thought to be in fierce competition for the two
seats that now seem to be open.
there were three.
Kent Ewing is a Hong
Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached
at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter:
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