China's year of celebration and
disgrace By Kent Ewing
KONG - Looking back at the swirl of people and
events that shaped 2012 in China, one man - bold,
proud and also perhaps thoroughly sinister -
stands out among the crowd: Bo Xilai.
Jinping may have triumphed at last month's 18th
National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party
(CCP), during which a fifth generation of Chinese
leaders was dutifully anointed, but it is the
vanquished Bo, languishing in detention for the
past nine months in a location unknown, who
deserves the title of China's Man of the Year.
President Hu Jintao, who will step aside for Xi in
March, must feel outmaneuvered. Of the new
appointees on the
Standing Committee, whose membership decreased
from nine to seven, only two - Li Keqiang, the new
premier, and Liu Yunshan, the country's propaganda
chief - are his allies; the others owe their
loyalty to former president Jiang Zemin, who
continues to be a political force despite his
advanced age, 86, and a decade out of power.
Bo the catalyst Bo, former party chief for
the sprawling southwestern municipality of
Chongqing, may have failed spectacularly in his
brazen quest to break into China's charmed circle
of leadership on the Politburo Standing Committee,
but his fall from grace has served as a garish
reminder of everything that is wrong with
one-party rule in China.
no one be fooled: Bo did not go down because he is
corrupt - or even because his wife, Gu Kailai, is
now a convicted murderer. If every corrupt
official in China were dismissed from his post
today, there would be precious few public servants
reporting to work tomorrow in cities and towns
across this nation of 1.3 billion people.
Corruption is endemic in the
party; in that way, Bo, 63, was only playing by
the rules, not breaking them. What makes Bo's case
special is that he ignored other party conventions
that encourage officials to kowtow to their
superiors and to adopt dignified, if also dull and
stilted, public personas. (Hu - still in search of
a personality after 10 years in power - is a prime
The leadership tandem of Hu
and Premier Wen Jiabao was never fond of Bo, the
princeling son of Bo Yibo, who is considered,
along with former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping,
one of the "eight immortals" who led China through
a critical period of reform during the1980s and
into the early 1990s; that's why Bo was exiled to
Chongqing in 2007 after serving quite capably as
commerce minister for three years. Hu and Wen
always felt threatened by him, and this was their
way of shunting him aside.
refused to go quietly into China's political
night. Instead of meekly accepting his new duties
in Chongqing, he turned the municipality of more
than 33 million people into a brash platform to
gain national attention and win popular support.
First, with the help of his
ruthless police chief, Wang Lijun, he launched a
no-holds-barred anti-crime campaign in a city
infamous for triads who had succeeded in
corrupting much of officialdom. Paying scant
attention to human rights or due process, Wang
undertook a sweeping purge that led to the arrests
of nearly 6,000 people - crime bosses, government
officials, police officers and lawyers who dared
to defend the accused.
campaign may have amounted to an abuse of power,
but it also dramatically reduced crime in
Chongqing and turned Bo into a popular figure in
the city and across the nation.
further enhance his popularity, Bo revived the
slogans, songs and massive rallies of the Cultural
Revolution, Mao Zedong's 10-year purge of his
political enemies that ended with his death in
1976. Bo's revival of revolutionary ideals was
seen as an implicit criticism of the leadership of
Hu, a bland technocrat, and Wen, who sometimes
spoke of political reform and a fairer society but
whose actions appeared to support the status quo
of a widening wealth gap and rampantly corrupt
Out of favor with Hu and Wen,
Bo tried to go around them by creating a
charismatic populist crusade tinged with nostalgia
for the communist ideals of fairness, comradeship
and equality under Mao. He hoped to make himself
so widely popular and revered that his candidacy
for a seat on the Standing Committee could not be
If Bo had succeeded, Chinese
politics would have been profoundly changed by his
new brand of populism and by the "Chongqing model"
that he championed. But, alas, he did not.
After falling out with Wang,
Bo demoted his erstwhile right-hand man to a
portfolio overseeing municipal education, science
and the environment. A distraught Wang, apparently
bearing evidence of Bo's crimes in office as well
as of his wife's murder of British businessman
Neil Heywood, then tried to defect at the American
consulate in Chengdu.
The Americans turned Wang
down, but his failed defection was nevertheless
the beginning of the end for Bo, who was
subsequently stripped of all official posts and is
likely to be tried for corruption. Gu was given a
suspended death sentence for killing Heywood and
Wang a 15-year jail term for abuse of power and
attempting to defect.
In the end, Bo's popularity
and lust for greater power became too heady a mix
and wound up bringing him down rather than raising
him up. He was nevertheless the catalyst who shook
the Communist Party to its core, revealing the
depth of its internal rifts and corruption to the
For that reason alone, even
though he was the big loser in the party power
struggle, Bo was the most important figure in
China over the past year.
Wen and the New York
Times If Bo is to be
singled out for corruption, then what about Wen,
whose family - according to an exhaustive
investigative report in the New York Times -
amassed at least US$2.7 billion in assets while
Wen held high positions in the Chinese government?
Particularly interesting was
the Times assertion - based on corporate records
and regulatory documents - that Wen's 90-year-old
mother, Yang Zhiyun, holds a US$120 million
investment in Ping An Insurance, a company so
cash-strapped in 1999 that it was on the verge of
a government-mandated break-up until it was
granted a waiver by Wen, then vice premier.
Following that waiver,
records show, Wen's relatives, especially his
mother, made a killing in Ping An shares.
Although there was nothing
illegal under Chinese law about any of these
transactions, they certainly look and smell fishy
and have damaged the reputation of the man who,
known as the "people's premier" for his affability
and apparent concern for ordinary citizens, had
been by far the most popular figure in a
leadership team otherwise distinctly lacking in
charm and charisma.
Of course, China's army of
Internet censors did its level best to block the
Times report, but that effort has not prevented
the basic details of the story from slipping
through the cracks in the country's Great
There is speculation among
analysts - so far unconfirmed - that Times
researchers and reporters may have been led to the
Wen investigation by supporters of Bo now seeking
revenge for their fallen hero. Whatever the case,
the story is a disquieting reminder that Bo is not
alone among Chinese officials for his association
with suspect financial transactions.
Lawyers for Wen have
denounced the Times report as inaccurate and have
threatened to sue the paper for liable. But it
seems unlikely that Wen will take the Times to
court as a trial would only prolong the
embarrassing publicity for him and further tarnish
China's already woeful record for respecting a
free media. Indeed, the Times is more likely to
win an award for this report than wind up in the
dock defending it. And Wen's reputation will never
be quite the same.
Whether Bo's people had a
hand is this or not, they must be smiling.
Xi the reformer? Xi has also been smiling a
lot lately as media pundits hail him, as they
hailed Hu 10 years ago when he became president,
as a possible champion of reform. Certainly, his
first inspection tour since becoming general
secretary of the Communist Party at last month's
congress was choreographed to encourage that
Emulating Deng's momentous southern tour
of 1992, the 59-year-old Xi chose to travel to the
boom city of Shenzhen, which had been a backward
village bordering Hong Kong before Deng designated
it a Special Economic Zone in 1980, launching a
series of economic experiments that would lead to
China's grand transition to a market economy.
Indeed, Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, governor of
Guangdong province at the time, was instrumental
in implementing these reforms.
Twelve years after Deng
granted Shenzhen its special status, however,
experiments with capitalism had stalled, and party
conservatives urged Deng to return to a command
economy. Deng's answer was travel to Shenzhen and
other cities in Guangdong province, where he would
famously pronounce: "To get rich is glorious."
although Deng would die five years later, there
was no turning back on China's economic reforms
and "opening up" to the rest of the world.
Retracing Deng's footsteps
over five days earlier this month, Xi aimed to
burnish his own image as a reformer now that it
seems China's economy is again faltering as
state-owned enterprises monopolize key industries
and stall progress. The country's lop-sided
economic development has resulted in a wealth gap
that is now among the worst in the world,
according to the Survey and Research Center for
China Household Finance.
Laying a wreath at a statue
honoring Deng at Shenzhen's Lotus Hill Park, Xi
stated: "We came here to show that we will
unswervingly push forward reform and opening up."
He would make a point of
repeating this message while also promising to
"break new ground" as he travelled to the
Guangdong capital of Guangzhou and also to Zuhai
Xi's refreshing rhetoric gave
new hope to party members who fault Hu and Wen for
slowing the pace of economic reform by allowing
inefficient state-owned enterprises to tighten
their grip on the economy.
What was also refreshing
about Xi's tour was the man himself. There was
none of the stilted rhetoric and body language
that have characterized Hu's public appearances
for the past decade, and there was none of the
red-carpet pomp, gluttonous banquets and
suffocating security that usually mark visits to
the provinces by high officials in the central
government. Nor was there the standard fawning
style is far more informal and down-to-earth than
the man he will replace. He has even ordered party
bureaucrats to shorten their speeches and "avoid
If he succeeds in that quest,
he will have achieved a sea change in the proud
culture of verbosity that has distinguished the
party since its inception.
Chinese netizens have noted
the change in tone and style and are signaling
whole-hearted approval of their new leader. He
will need their support as he deals not only with
the uncertainty of the global economy but also
with United States' strategic pivot to Asia and US
support for China's neighbors - such as Japan,
Vietnam and the Philippines - in disputes over
resource-rich islands located in the East China
Sea and the South China Sea.
will have a full plate - but, unfortunately,
much-needed political reform will not be on it.
So what, then, did the Chinese
leadership learn from the Bo Xilai scandal?
Seemingly nothing. But this
failure to address the lack of transparency and
the corruption that is eating away at the party's
authority cannot go on forever.
may not want to take up this immense challenge,
but eventually he will be forced to do so. A
system this corrupt simply cannot stand, no matter
the totalitarian force brought to bear.
Another Nobel prize, another
controversy Finally, this year, for
the second time in history, a citizen of mainland
China was awarded a Nobel prize - but this time,
unlike when it first happened in 2010, the
recipient was applauded and celebrated in China
rather than denounced and vilified.
That's because this year's
winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mo Yan,
is a card-carrying member of the Chinese Communist
Party, a former soldier in the People's Liberation
Army and vice chairman of the state-run Chinese
Writers' Association. To mark this year's 70th
anniversary of a landmark speech by Mao explaining
the role that art and literature should play in
furthering communist ideals, Mo paid homage to the
Great Helmsman by transcribing his words by hand.
Now the Swedish Academy has
chosen to honor Mo Yan, and the Chinese leadership
and media could not be more pleased. (Another
ethnic Chinese novelist, Gao Xingjian, won the
literature prize in 2000, but he is an exile who
was granted French citizenship in 1998.)
reaction was entirely different two years ago when
scholar Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace
Prize. At the time, Liu was - and still is -
serving an 11-year sentence in a Chinese jail for
"subversion of state power." His crime: authoring
a treatise calling for a more democratic system of
government in China.
After the Norwegian Nobel
Committee announced Liu's award, China's foreign
ministry condemned him as a criminal, called the
award "an obscenity" and summoned the Norwegian
ambassador (who had nothing to do with the
independent committee's decision) for a blistering
dressing-down. Beijing's relations with Oslo have
been testy ever since.
a difference two years can make. Now Chinese
authorities are gushing with praise for both Mo
Yan and the Swedish Academy while scores of exiled
Chinese dissidents - euphoric in 2010 - are doing
all the ranting and raving.
Yan, 57, wins accolades for a literary style that
employs elements of folk legend, fairy tales and
fable in ways that have been compared to the
writing of the great magical realist Gabriel
Garcia Marquez of Colombia, who received the
literature prize in 1982. His richly complex works
- Red Sorghum, The Garlic Ballads and Life and Death Are Wearing Me
Out, among others -
have been widely translated and lavished with
praise both in China and in the West.
There is little argument
against Mo's astonishing talent as a writer, which
is why he was feted in Stockholm earlier this
month, but is he also a "patsy" of the Chinese
government? That's what he has been called by the
likes of Salman Rushdie, author of several highly
acclaimed novels, including The Satanic Verses, whose
publication in 1988 angered many in the Muslim
world and prompted the then supreme leader of
Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to issue a fatwa (assassination
order) in February of 1989 that forced the
novelist to spend the next 10 years in hiding.
penname Mo Yan (meaning "don't speak") - the
author's given name is Guan Moye - adds to the
perception that Mo is a government stooge. He says
it harkens back to his days growing up in the
chaos of the Cultural Revolution in Shandong
province, when his parents warned him it was
dangerous to speak his mind. Mo's critics, however, claim
that he remains silent on important issues today
to curry favor with government officials. They are
outraged by his decision not to sign a petition
demanding Liu's release and by his support for
censorship in China, which he compares to
necessary security checks at airports around the
Defending himself - as well
as his adopted name - in his acceptance speech in
Stockholm, Mo said: "For a writer, the best way to
speak is by writing. You will find everything I
need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by
the wind; the written word can never be
Beautiful words, but they are
untrue. Chinese censors obliterate millions of
words - written and unwritten - every day, without
any assistance from the wind.
Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer.
He can be reached at [email protected] him
on Twitter: @KentEwing1.
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