What the rise and fall of Bo Xilai tells us about China’s future

Bo Xilai, a colourful politician who brought prosperity to a Chinese backwater, was too ambitious for the Politburo's grey men.  

Bo Xilai, a colourful politician who brought prosperity to a Chinese backwater, was too ambitious for the Politburo's grey men.

Surrounded by mountains that trap it in a legendarily thick haze of smog, the Chinese megalopolis of Chongqing is nicknamed “the city in a cloud”. It is, however, Chongqing's political climate, not its meteorological one, that is causing sharp intakes of breath across China right now. Very few in the West may have heard of it, but this sprawling megacity with a population of 32 million is bigger than most European countries. And the electrifying rise and fall of its high-profile Communist Party secretary – an ambitious and charismatic politician called Bo Xilai – has arguably caused the biggest political ructions in China since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

Bo Xilai's life story mirrors his country's roller-coaster progression. Born the son of a prominent Communist, he and his family spent years in prisons and labour camps in the darker years of Mao's Cultural Revolution, during which his mother died in suspicious circumstances and his father was tortured. He then rose through the party ranks to become boss of Chongqing, winning huge public acclaim for unprecedented campaigns against organised crime and the corrupt party officialdom that often shields it.

The closest thing China has to a Western politician, the charismatic Mr Bo embodies the contrasts of China's rapid economic reform, espousing Maoist slogans while sending his son to be privately educated at Harrow, followed by Oxford and Harvard. Last Thursday, though, having looked set for the very top of the Politburo, he was abruptly sacked: his biggest crime – in the eyes of party elders at least – to have been an individual in a system that still prides conformity above all else. His demise has drawn attention from the outside world because it raised profound questions about the nature of China's politics.

After Mao and Tiananmen Square, the Chinese elite has preferred its senior officials to be bland to the point of invisibility, and its politics free of excitement. But Mr Bo, 62, has been a stubborn exception to the rule, a rare maverick in a system that does everything to discourage them. When he was snubbed for the Politburo's standing committee in 2007 and sent to Chongqing – then an underdeveloped backwater in Western China – people expected him to recede from the political scene. Instead, he has made Chongqing not just an economic success story but also the flagship of China's “Red revival”, trading on a nostalgia – perhaps misplaced – among many Chinese who are angry at how economic reform has widened the gap between rich and poor, and often benefited party apparatchiks and spivs more than anyone else.

With a “Robo Cop” police at his side helping him to clean up his dirty city, the charismatic Mr Bo became China's answer to New York's Mike Bloomberg or London's Boris Johnson, charting a new course as a media-friendly populist who made a name for himself by taking on the party's elites. In China everything that matters is measured, and local officials in Chongqing would proudly reel off the vital statistics of their progress.

The anti-mafia campaign saw thousands arrested; hundreds convicted; and 14 people executed (including local officials and businessmen, and possibly some political rivals). The Red campaign, meanwhile, saw 10,000 revolutionary singing events organized, 8,000 “Red” story telling events, and half a million Red mottoes sent by text messages. “We are promulgating Red classics to boost the Red spirit”, said one official. Yet what made Bo so central to the future of China was not so much the Maoist rhetoric, but the mix of populist, egalitarian and free-market policies that he introduced.

On the one hand, he aggressively courted inward investment and high-tech companies to Chongqing (over half of the world's laptops in its the Hewlett Packard plant). At the same time, he massively increased the size of the state – growing the state-owned enterprises, building 750,000 social housing units, compensating farmers for their land through a new land-exchange scheme, and giving more than two million migrant workers access to social benefits. In a country where there are over 100,000 violent protests a year about corruption, social problems and inequality, his vowed to close the gap between rich and poor won him genuine support.

But his campaign was not just aimed at making life in this long-neglected corner of China better. It was also a brazen attempt to be selected as one of seven people on the standing committee of the politburo when the current leaders give up their party posts late in 2012 – effectively the seven most powerful jobs in China.

Last month, though, his role as an anti-mafia strongman backfired when a scandal worthy of US cop show “The Wire” erupted on his home city. That was when Wang Lijun, his hand-picked police chief, suddenly turned up at the US Consulate in neighbouring Chengdu, where he allegedly asked for political asylum as well as offering to dish the dirt on his former boss. Chinese police surrounded the building, and after spending the night there, Mr Wang left with them, since when he has remained in custody.

What exactly he offered to the Americans is not known, but the saga gave Mr Bo's enemies within the party all the grounds they needed to sack him. The day before his sacking last week he was also publicly reprimanded by Premier Wen Jiabao, who, in his annual press conference, warned against China returning to the days of the Cultural Revolution, an indirect rebuke of Mr Bo's efforts to revive “Red culture” in Chongqing.

Was that the real reason? Or was it because he openly campaigned for the leadership in a system that abhors open competition? Or because he simply upset the wrong people with his anti-mafia campaign? “We put 1000 people in prison and they have relatives, people who benefited from their illegal activities,” says one of his aides. “We knew from the start that there would be opposition.”

The answers to these questions are not yet clear, although there seems little doubt that Chongqing's era of charismatic leaders is over. Mr Bo's replacement in the city is Zhang Dejiang, a North Korean-trained economist considered a grey party man even by Politburo standards. Yet as China prepares for its new political leadership in the autumn, there is a growing consensus that it also stands on the threshold of a new era in its development.

Should the priority be promoting private enterprise or reducing inequality? And what kind of political reforms are needed, now that 500 million citizens have access to the internet and wealth has created a massive middle class? Mr Bo's reign in Chongqing was controversial because it proffered answers to these questions, though not in any straightforward Western or Eastern model.

The mix of social policy, state investment, and subsidies to attract big multinationals like Apple, Foxconn and Hewlett Packard was no simple return to Maoist economics. And the populist mass mobilisations and anti-mafia crackdowns also seemed to promise a new model of high-tech dictatorship rather than moving closer to democracy.

However, Jiang Wenran, a former class-mate of Mr Bo's from university, thinks that it was more political posturing than a return to past. “The family had much endured much suffering during the Cultural Revolution”, he said. “It's hard to even imagine Bo was about to take Chongqing or China onto a Cultural Revolution road of some kind”.

This article was first published by the Sunday Telegraph.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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