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    Greater China
     Mar 28, 2012

Rumor over substance
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - Beijing's dismissal of Bo Xilai as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) secretary of Chongqing municipality has upset the so-called new leftists and his supporters who had regarded his experiment in the southwestern Chinese city to return to some form of socialism as a template to shape the country if Bo could grab more power.

Bo, who had been tipped to take a seat on the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee later this year, was dismissed this month over a scandal involving his police chief, Wang Lijun.

During his tenure in Chongqing, starting in 2007, Bo adopted a distinct style of populism - he initiated a campaign against organized crime, reinstated egalitarian welfare programs for the working class, maintained consistent double-digit economic


growth, and initiated campaigns to revive a Cultural Revolution-era "red culture".

The new leftists, a small minority in a country in which the majority of people support the ongoing opening-up policy despite the problems it has brought about in the past three decades, are fighting back.

Immediately after the announcement of Bo's dismissal, Professor Kong Qingdong of Peking University, a die-hard new leftist, denounced the move - in a talk show on popular Internet-protocol television v1.cn - as a "counter-revolutionary coup" and called for people to step forward to fight against a "dark force".

The program was quickly removed from the website. (It was Kong who had earlier branded Hong Kong people as "dogs", starting a war of words between Hongkongers and mainlanders. [1]) The country was in fact rocked with rumors of a coup last week, allegedly planned by Bo and his supporters. (See Crisis closes in on China's inner circle Asia Times Online, March 27.)

Another member from the new leftist camp and a Bo supporter is Sima Nan, who wrote a poem on his weibo or mini-blog likening Bo to a "staunch pillar" in southwestern China and saying that his sacking was a "sad setback for the Chinese nation".

Apparently in an effort to prevent more such messages from spreading on the Internet, the flagship website of the new leftists, Utopia, was blocked for several days. When it was allowed to reopen after some "technical problems were solved", its homepage was left blank as a way of protest (implying that it was not allowed to talk freely).

Nevertheless, while the authorities can forcefully ban open criticism, they have failed to stop the rumor mill.

The most shocking rumors emerged on the Internet during the night of March 19, with some people saying "Military vehicles are rolling into Beijing", and that a "Curfew has been imposed on [Beijing's] Chang'an Street" and that "Gunshots are heard".

If not true, the messages metaphorically implied that the Communist Party's top leadership was split and "a new Gang of Four had been smashed". The "Gang of Four" refers to a faction in the politburo during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) headed by Mao Zedong's last wife, Jiang Qing, and supported by Mao. Less than a month after Mao's death, they were arrested in what overseas China watchers called a "coup d'etat", on October 6, 1976.

These rumors were immediately challenged and refuted with strong evidence by other web surfers. As a result, inside China, the rumors died almost as quickly as they had emerged. This is a convincing example of freedom of speech in action; rumors cannot last long.

Still, the next day, Epoch Times, a newspaper run by the anti-communist Falungong, picked up on the rumors and splashed a big story. This caused a scare in Hong Kong, where the stock market dipped, although this was attributed to an adjustment, and most newspapers in Hong Kong did not play up the story.

The suspicion is that the rumors were started by the new leftists and Bo's supporters, who want to see their ilk fighting at the power center against the established ruling elite.

A major power transfer is due at the 18th National Congress of the CCP in October this year at which Vice President Xi Jinping, as things stand, is the presumptive president and Vice Premier Li Keqiang is the presumptive prime minister, taking over from President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, respectively. With official information lacking, people keen to know who will be in and who out need to keep their ears open for hearsay.

All the same, anyone who understands the Chinese system would dismiss rumors of a military coup immediately. In China, only the chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) can order troops to move from one place to another. Hu is the CMC chairman, so without his order, no troops could be moved into Beijing. Thus possibility of a military coup against him is practically nil.

On the other hand, if Hu, firm in power, wanted to purge a senior official (as in the case of two politburo members, former Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu and Bo Xilai), he would not need to launch a coup. (The smashing of the Gang of Four in 1976 was possible because of the full support of Hua Guofeng, Mao's appointed successor, who was then CMC chairman.)

However, as a Chinese saying has it, "There are no waves without wind." So why then did the rumors emerge and quickly spread?

Officially, Bo was dismissed as Chongqing party chief over his links to his right-hand man - former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, who walked into the US consulate in Chengdu, capital of neighboring Sichuan province, in a failed attempt to seek asylum.

Bo still remains a politburo member, but his whereabouts remains unknown. He could have been purged for other reasons, such as corruption or for what he has done in Chongqing.

There is also mystery about Wang's case. Did he plan to defect?

As long as such questions remain unanswered, rumors about Bo and Wang could easily start again and spread.

Bo is a princeling - son of a revolutionary - and was once a rising political star, so he must have sympathizers and supporters in the power center. Hence, there is suspicion that opinions might have been split among senior leaders over his dismissal.

Zhou Yongkang, one of the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo and in charge of law enforcement, was the first Standing Committee member to visit Chongqing. He gave high praise to Bo's campaigns to crack down on gangsters and to sing "Red Songs". Hearsay has it that Zhou's godson, Kong Tao, is a close friend of Wang. Through Wang, Bo became close to Zhou, supposition has it.

This argument claims that the attempted "coup" on the night of March 19 was launched by Zhou, though he is not named. (This on the surface is probable as Zhou could command the police, but in fact it is impossible because Zhongnanhai is tightly guarded by military soldiers - not the police). It also happened that on the day of March 19, Zhou presided over a national conference of law enforcement officials on how to maintain stability.

Two days later, another rumor surged that Zhou "has been kept under surveillance".

Beijing was forced to react this time, at least partially in order to quash the rumor. State-run Xinhua News Agency reported on March 22 that Zhou had written a letter to a conference on law enforcement in Shanghai. Apart from all the officialese, Zhou hails in his letter the "correct leadership" of the party power center "headed by General Secretory Hu Jintao". In other words, he was given the opportunity to make known his position that he is on the side of Hu.

Zhou then made a public appearance on March 26, attending the opening ceremony of a training class for regional party officials in charge of law enforcement in Beijing. Zhou called on all law enforcement officials across the country to "keep in line with" the party central leadership "on matters of principle".

Hence, even if Zhou had originally expressed his reservations or objections to the dismissal of Bo (which is highly doubtful), surely now he is "keeping in line" with Hu on "matters of principle".

Indeed, the activities of senior leaders after Bo's dismissal show no signs of a coup. Wen went on an inspection trip to Henan on March 17-18. Hu left Beijing on March 25 for an eight-day overseas trip. Liu Yandong, a politburo member, reportedly went to Shenzhen on March 16 to see to it that Leung Chun-ying would be elected as the next chief executive of Hong Kong. Had there been a coup or any sign of a possible coup, they would have all stayed in Beijing.

It is true that "rumors stop at a wise man". But in China, rumors could be stopped, or at least reduced, by an increase in political transparency. When the public is kept in the dark over political maneuvering, rumors inevitably start. Chinese history is full of palace coups, hence people are fond of talking about palace coups when a senior official is removed without adequate information.

At a press conference after the closing of the annual session of the National People's Congress on March 14, Wen demanded that Chongqing authorities "seriously" reflect on and draw lessons from the Wang Lijun incident, sending a signal about Bo's exit.

But he also pledged that the results of the investigation would be made public. "As far as the result of the investigation and how this case will be handled are concerned, an answer must be given to the people and the result of the investigation should be able to stand the test of law and history," he said. [2]

Hopefully, an answer to how Bo's case will be handled will also be given to the people.

Until then, the rumor mill is unlikely to stop churning.

1. Mainland chip on Hong Kong's shoulder, Asia Times Online, February 3, 2012.
2. Premier Wen presses Chongqing authorities to reflect on Wang Lijun incident, Xinhua, March 14, 2012.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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