How Bo Xilai’s Fall Will Affect China’s Leadership Transition

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Stringer / Reuters

Bo Xilai, former head of the Communist Party in Chongqing, and his wife Gu Kailai are pictured at a mourning held for Bo's father Bo Yibo in Beijing on Jan. 17, 2007

On Jan. 16, Bo Xilai, who then still ran the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing, declared at a meeting of local officials that “integrity is a kind of blessing” and they should “maintain the Communist Party’s pure and advanced nature, be self-disciplined, clean in their government work and strive to build a ‘clean Chongqing.'” That anticorruption drive is happening in ways that Bo probably didn’t intend. Over the past month he has been ousted first from his position as Chongqing party secretary, then his seats on the Communist Party’s Politburo and Central Committee. His wife Gu Kailai has been arrested for murder in connection with the death of Neil Heywood, a British businessman with a long connection to the Bo family who died in Chongqing last fall. A former Bo deputy, ex-Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, revealed his suspicions over Heywood’s death in a visit to a U.S. consulate in February before being taken into custody by state security officers. The Chongqing Daily, the official newspaper that highlighted Bo’s January anticorruption talk on its front page and had previously cheered his leadership, had a particularly severe case of whiplash. It told readers on Monday that the investigation into Bo was “a great fortune for the party, for the country and for Chongqing, deeply suits the party’s wishes and the people’s wishes,” AFP reported.

Bo’s purge has been labeled the biggest leadership upheaval in China since soldiers crushed the Tiananmen movement on June 4, 1989. But that comparison is more an expression of how tightly the party has managed politics over the past two decades than the potential for similar upheaval today. Bo had been a front runner for elevation to the Politburo Standing Committee, the top ruling body, and his downfall creates a significant political vacuum others are vying to fill. But officials of his status, if not outsize personality, have been toppled before, including Beijing party secretary Chen Xitong, who was ousted in an anticorruption campaign in 1995, and Shanghai party secretary Chen Liangyu, who was dismissed in 2006 and later sentenced to 18 years in prison for abusing the city’s pension fund.

(MORE: Can the Chinese Communist Party Contain the Bo Xilai Scandal?)

Unlike those of disgraced Chen Xitong and Chen Liangyu, Bo’s case involves a murder allegation. The other major difference between Bo and his fellow fallen officials is the way he cultivated a public following through his popular campaign against organized crime — which many critics have said trampled the rule of law — efforts to revive Mao-era “red culture” and an emphasis on social benefits for poorer Chongqing residents. His popularity makes his removal that much more complicated. The party has been aggressively playing up anticorruption efforts. In an article on Monday in Seeking Truth, a journal of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, Premier Wen Jiabao wrote that “the biggest threat to a ruling party is corruption” and called for “power to be exercised in the sunshine.”

Likewise, the Chinese military, with which Bo had cultivated close ties, has been ordering anticorruption study sessions that emphasize the disgraced Chongqing leader’s case, the People’s Liberation Army Daily reported on Friday. But while those public messages indicate a wariness of Bo’s residual influence, there is little sign that his removal will cause waves of the magnitude felt in 1989. “This was a major takedown of an extraordinary figure by the party apparatus,” says Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst. “It’s thus far been done with little political fallout and very little, if any, reaction in the streets. That’s a display of considerable acumen in Beijing.” In an online essay, Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted: “Among the profound differences between the Tiananmen incident in 1989 and the Bo crisis is that in the latter case, at least so far, China’s economy and society have been hardly disrupted.”

(MORE: The Fall of Bo Xilai and the Future of Chinese Growth)

Indeed, Bo Zhiyue, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore, says the removal of Bo Xilai (no relation) could make this fall’s transition easier, as it removes one of the most divisive figures among the field of potential top leaders. “Bo Xilai brought something that made everybody uncomfortable and that was the performance element, the popular element,” he says. “Both were absent in previous selection processes. Whatever credentials you had, how popular or not you were did not matter. Bo Xilai was trying to make these a factor and that made people uneasy. Once those two factors are downplayed, we should have a more or less easy transition.”

That doesn’t mean the next few months won’t be interesting. Most every day sees a new revelation in Bo’s case. Reuters reported on Monday that Heywood had been poisoned in a hilltop guesthouse the news agency identified as the Nanshan Lijing Holiday Hotel after threatening to reveal Gu’s plans to send money abroad. And U.S. officials, who had been silent over Wang’s visit to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, a city about 200 miles (320 km) from Chongqing, have finally begun to talk, telling the New York Times on Tuesday that Wang entered the consulate “telling a tale of corruption and murder.” Those developments have been widely discussed online in China, despite efforts to block posts containing sensitive information and rumors, including a three-day shutdown of comments on Chinese microblogs. Those conversations will be uncomfortable for China’s leaders, particularly as they consider how someone like Bo came so close to the country’s highest echelon of power. But they’re far happier having people talking online than taking to the streets.

MORE: Fall of Bo Xilai Signals Change in China’s Growth Model