Wednesday May 27, 2020


March 19, 2012

On March 15, China’s Xinhua news agency released a short statement announcing that Zhang Dejiang is replacing Bo Xilai as the Chinese Communist Party chief in Chongqing, one of China’s major metropolitan areas. The announcement sparked a firestorm of media coverage, blog entries, and microblog posts with both analysis of and speculation about the move and its possible motives. Bo Xilai’s ouster, despite the brief nature of the official announcement, is being seen in some quarters as a substantial political change with potential implications for China’s upcoming leadership transition.

In the fall of this year, top Party officials will gather for the 18th National Communist Party Congress, a major political event held once every five years that determines policy for China’s immediate future. The 18th Congress is especially important because of the leadership change that presumably will take place this year. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are both expected to relinquish their leadership roles within the CCP, presumably to be replaced by Vice President Xi Jinping and Vice Premier Li Keqiang, respectively. In addition to these changes, new members will also be appointed to fill seven of the nine seats on China’s Politburo Standing Committee (only Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will retain their seats). The Standing Committee dictates policy for all of China; its members have effectively reached the pinnacle of Chinese politics. This is especially true today, when leadership is mostly consensus-based, and no single person exerts the vast amount of influence enjoyed by both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

The question of who will be appointed to the Standing Committee has important connotations for the future direction of China’s government. Thus the dismissal of Bo Xilai takes on critical importance. Bo’s dismissal is certainly tied to the corruption investigation against his right-hand man, former Deputy Mayor Wang Lijun, who mysteriously fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu for a night in early February before handing himself over to security forces from Beijing. Wang is currently under investigation by the Party. While Bo’s close ties to Wang are damaging, the prevailing theory is that Bo’s ouster represents not the effects of a one-time political scandal, but the repercussions of a larger political shift.

Until recently, Bo Xilai was considered a front-runner for one of the vacant seats on the Standing Committee. Bo had effectively put in his bid for consideration by vigorously promoting his “Chongqing model,” an aggressive attempt to make over Chongqing as a model socialist city. Under the Chongqing model, Bo attempted to address social and economic inequalities while also spearheading a heavy crackdown on organized crime in Chongqing. In addition, Bo promoted what came to be known as a “red revival,” a campaign that placed a new emphasis on the glory of the Communist Party by encouraging citizens to sing “red anthems” popular in the Maoist era and to read government-recommended books on Marxism and Maoism.

As a whole, the reforms were attractive to those people, sometimes called “new leftists,” who were interested in an aggressive return to socialism. In many academic circles, Bo is seen as the champion of the new leftists; if not representative of a concrete political faction, Bo certainly had many vocal supporters. Thus Bo’s ouster has been interpreted by some as a symbolic move that effectively heralds the downfall of the new leftist movement. Zhang Min, a political science professor at Renmin University in Beijing, declared that Bo’s fate means that “the Chongqing model is also over, and the chance of [China] turning leftward is finished.”

Clearly, to some analysts Bo’s defeat is not a self-contained incident but a rare hint of what direction China’s 18th Congress might take in selecting its new leaders. Bo’s loss is presumably the gain of his main rival Wang Yang, Bo’s predecessor as Party chief in Chongqing and currently the Party chief in Guangdong. The two men’s rivalry, played out in public in front of the media, earned them the joint nickname “the two cannons.” Bo’s “Chongqing model” was seen as a direct competitor to Wang’s “Happy Guangdong” model, which sought to improve the quality of life in Guangdong both socially and economically. Wang has generally been seen as a reformist, with more liberal attitudes than Bo and the new leftists; Wang’s gentle handling of a recent protest movement in Wukan helped cement his reputation as a liberal reformer. In light of Bo’s firing, Wang Yang and the reformist-minded camp that backs him seem to have won an important victory.

While Bo Xilai remains popular in Chongqing, where locals applaud the effects of his attempts to create income equality and his efforts to reduce crime, high-level officials seem never to have warmed to Bo. Given the consensus-based style of leadership preferred by top officials, it has been theorized that Bo’s CCP superiors disapproved of Bo’s abundant personal charisma and tendency to appeal to the masses through media appearances. The idea of a media-savvy, personally charismatic leader leading a mass movement runs counter to the current style of the CCP, which involves low-profile, consensus-based politics. Neither Hu Jintao nor Wen Jiabao visited Chongqing during Bo’s tenure, which is interpreted as an implicit criticism of Bo and his Chongqing model.

Bo’s policies also faced criticism. His anti-crime campaign, while praised by some mid-level officials, also caused outcries from lawyers and businessmen, who accused Bo and his police force of targeting political opponents rather than actual criminals. Further, Bo’s “red revival” campaign made the upper echelon of the CCP extremely nervous. Wen Jiabo’s press conference on March 14, the day before Bo’s replacement was announced, repeatedly warned that without reforms China could suffer from another Cultural Revolution, an implicit critique of the “red revival.” Wen’s veiled but very public criticisms of both the “red revival” and Chongqing’s leadership supposedly represent the prevailing opinion of current CCP leaders. Clearly Bo, for both personal and political reasons, fell out of favor with his superiors.

However, that does not necessarily mean that Wang and other reform-minded officials will enjoy a boost in power. Bo’s replacement as Chongqing Party chief, Zhang Dejiang, is generally recognized as part of the same faction as Bo, the “Shanghai faction” headed by former President Jiang Zemin. It appears that Party officials are unwilling to substantially change the balance of power currently at place in the Party, meaning that the Standing Committee seat Bo was expected to occupy could likely be awarded to someone with similar views and connections. The Party seems eager to maintain its status quo, and firing Bo may have been seen as a necessary step towards keeping up a united front.

Ever since political in-fighting in the CCP helped determine the government’s reaction to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the Party has put forth a concerted, and generally successful, effort to keep its inner workings private. The downfall of Bo Xilai threatens to bring the mysterious factional struggles within the CCP to public light, but the Party leaders will work hard to keep any disagreements under wraps. For now it remains unclear exactly what effect Bo’s ouster will have on the makeup of the Standing Committee, and thus the future of China’s government. But both within China and abroad, all eyes are on the Party as it gears up for the leadership transition.

For further information on Bo Xilai and his replacement as Chongqing Party chief, please see the following news sources:

China Daily – “Chongqing Party chief changed

China Digital Times – “Bo Xilai: Down, but Out?

The Economist – “The Sacking of Bo Xilai

The Jamestown Foundation – “Bo Xilai’s Campaign for the Standing Committee and the Future of Chinese Politicking

Reuters – “Insight: With Bo Xilai down, nine leaders who may soon run China

Reuters – “In China’s Chongqing, dismay over downfall of Bo Xilai

Wall Street Journal – “A Bo-mb Drops in Beijing: The Experts’ Take

Wall Street Journal – “China Purge Sets Up Scramble at Top

Washington Post – “Bo Xilai’s ouster seen as victory for Chinese reformers

For Chinese commentary on Bo Xilai and his replacement, please see the following news sources:

Duowei News (多维新闻) – “两会折腾 压倒薄熙来政治命运的最后一根稻草

China (中国网) – “中央免去薄熙来、王立军职务 由张德江、何挺接任

Edited and compiled by Shannon Reed.