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    Greater China
     Dec 22, 2012


China's year of celebration and disgrace
By Kent Ewing

HONG 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.

President-in-waiting Xi 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.

Meanwhile, President Hu Jintao, who will step aside for Xi in March, must feel outmaneuvered. Of the new appointees on the

 
all-powerful Politburo 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.

Let 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 example.).

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.

Bo 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.

The 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.

To 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 one-party rule.

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 ignored.

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 world.

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 Firewall.

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 perception.

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."

Thereafter, 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 and Foshan.

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 media coverage.

Xi's 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 empty talk."

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.

Xi 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.

Xi 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.)

The 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.

What 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.

Mo 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.

The 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 world.

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 obliterated."

Beautiful words, but they are untrue. Chinese censors obliterate millions of words - written and unwritten - every day, without any assistance from the wind.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing56@gmail.comFollow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1.

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





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