The Fall of Bo Xilai: Lessons from One of China’s Biggest Political Scandals

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Andy Wong / AP

Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai attends a plenary session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11, 2012. He was removed from his post four days later

The senior official from Chongqing, China’s largest city, suddenly looked uneasy. It was last summer, and I had just asked him about “red culture,” the drive by Bo Xilai, Chongqing’s now disgraced party boss, to instill revolutionary fervor in citizens by singing patriotic songs and reading communist classics. The official was a political ally of Bo’s. Like his polished mentor, he wore a suit of a fine fabric and a rather nice watch. Given that Bo had, according to the official, “turned red culture into Chongqing’s calling card to the world,” it was surprising that the top bureaucrat then proceeded to stumble on what the controversial campaign, which has drawn comparisons to the Cultural Revolution, actually meant. By the time he had finished his convoluted explanation, I had learned that red culture not only included communist values but also encompassed the wisdom of Confucius, Einstein, Shakespeare and Martin Luther King. Oh, and Michael Jackson too.

Brash, charismatic and possibly a fan of the Gloved One, Bo was the closest thing to a pop star in the Chinese political galaxy. Among the colorless men who lead China, the handsome 62-year-old was unabashedly Technicolor — equal parts showman and strongman, always keen to show off his pedigree as the son of one of the People’s Republic’s founding fathers. But on March 15, Bo was relieved of his duties as Chongqing’s Communist Party secretary in the biggest political scandal to strike China in years. The apparent purge of a so-called political princeling came months before the nation’s once-a-decade leadership transition in which Bo was to vie for a seat on the nine-person Standing Committee that rules China. Suddenly, the country’s collective leadership was admitting to intense internal rivalries — and a newly empowered Chinese public relished every juicy detail.

(READ: China’s Dark City: Behind Chongqing’s Crime Crackdown)

Chinese politics are still largely a hidden affair. Sinologists are forever using words like opaque to describe their efforts at political tea-leaf reading. But the rapidity with which details of the Bo scandal reached the Chinese public signaled a new social contract possibly emerging between China’s rulers and subjects. Hours after Bo’s sacking, his name was the most searched term on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. The previous month, the Chinese Internet went into overdrive when Bo’s lieutenant Wang Lijun spent a night in a U.S. consulate in southwestern China, raising suspicions that he was trying to defect and spill secrets about his former patron. Within hours, a map of Wang’s supposed route from Chongqing to the city of Chengdu appeared on the Internet. So did a purported picture of his boarding pass to Beijing, where he is believed to have gone after leaving the consulate and entering the custody of investigating Chinese authorities. The Drudge Report couldn’t have done any better than China’s online sleuths.

But there is another lesson from the Bo affair that is less heartening. Only one high-level Chinese politician has cultivated a public persona in recent years — and now this populist figure has been kneecapped. The man chosen to replace Bo is another gray-faced apparatchik whose most interesting biographical detail is the fact that he studied economics at a North Korean university. Compare that with Bo, a self-promoter who lavishly publicized his red-culture campaign. He also led a high-profile crusade against local mafia that even his supporters admit netted innocents along with gangsters. Bo held press conferences and, unlike practically every other Chinese leader, didn’t read out scripted answers. He relished political theater. “Bo Xilai is not a good politician for China,” says Yang Fan, an economist who co-authored a book called The Chongqing Model and was schooled in Beijing with Bo’s brother. “If he was American, he could have been successful by winning elections. But in China, there are basically no elections, and being too high profile doesn’t mesh with our political culture.”

(READ: High-Profile Chinese Politician Bo Xilai Is Removed from His Post)

It’s easy to disassociate from a disgraced politician, but Yang had been taking Bo to task since last year, when the Chongqing boss seemed swathed in political Kevlar. Chief among the economist’s criticisms was the fact that Bo’s leadership style and political ambitions were hindering efforts to make Chongqing a better place. Bo is an extreme embodiment of some of modern China’s biggest contradictions. How does a man preside over a red-culture campaign that echoed the Cultural Revolution when his own mother died during that turbulent period? As China’s Commerce Minister from 2004 to ’07, Bo negotiated trade deals with the West and impressed foreign envoys with his charm and colloquial English. His son, who attended Harrow and Oxford, has been spotted racing around in a red Ferrari. How could Bo arrive in Chongqing, one of China’s fastest-growing cities, and suddenly spout iterations of Chairman Mao’s class-busting ideology? “Last May, I said on my blog that Bo Xilai wanted to become Mao Zedong,” Yang told me after Bo’s dismissal. “But he failed because in today’s China there is no need for a Mao.”

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