The biggest political scandal to break in China for decades has rocked the leadership of the ruling Communist Party and riveted a country unaccustomed to such public drama.
Several months ago, Mr. Bo, the man in charge of the megalopolis of Chongqing in southwestern China, was gunning for one of the top nine slots in the Chinese political hierarchy to be filled at a party congress next autumn.
Today, brought low by scandal spiced with murder, sex, betrayal, and gross corruption, he has been stripped of all his official posts, and is under investigation for “grave disciplinary violations,” according to the official state news agency Xinhua.
The scandal is especially mortifying to the authorities because it has not only revealed malfeasance at the highest levels of an officially straitlaced government, but also unveiled factional infighting in a party obsessed with unity in the run-up to a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, when seven of the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo will be replaced.
On the heels of the announcement that Bo had been fired and that his wife was suspected of murder came a front-page commentary in the Communist Party organ, The People’s Daily, ordering the party’s 80 million members to “maintain unity of thought with the central party decision and maintain unity of action with the central party plan.”
Subsequently the paper published proclamations of loyalty from provincial party committees, such as Inner Mongolia‘s pledge to “require party officials to correctly understand and firmly support the central party’s decision.”
“If they are calling for unity, they clearly feel the need to do so,” points out Sidney Rittenberg, a veteran China analyst who was himself for many years a member of the Chinese Communist Party. “Whatever you call for, it means you don’t have enough of it.”
For the time being, with Bo and his wife in detention, the leadership appears to have restored a measure of surface tranquility to preparations for the 18th party congress. But the fundamental problem — how leaders of the world’s most populous nation are chosen — remains unsolved.
From ‘princeling’ to threat
Bo had powerful supporters at the highest levels of government: He is a “princeling” — the son of one of the “Eight Immortals” who fought alongside Mao Zedong to found the People’s Republic. He had an immaculate record as an effective leader as he rose through party ranks, and he had made a national name for himself by spearheading a crackdown on organized crime, launching generous welfare programs, and encouraging a campaign to promote Mao-era “red songs” redolent of a time when social solidarity mattered more than individual success.
His popularity in Chongqing, based on a high-profile Mao-style cult of personality, unnerved many of his peers, who were reluctant to elevate him to the top of the hierarchy. But Bo’s standing led him to believe that he could challenge President Hu Jintao‘s and Premier Wen Jiabao‘s plans for their succession.
“He got in the way of the train,” says Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based analyst of Communist Party politics. “The leadership could not necessarily agree on his policies, but they could agree that he was a political obstacle.”
Decisionmaking at the top of the party “is still a black box,” says Zheng Yongnian, dean of East Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. “The system does not have formal rules, transparency, or the rule of law.”
“There is an amazing lack of institutionalization in Chinese elite politics,” adds Dr. Moses. “The political culture here is like the traffic; there are just enough rules to prevent chaos.”
Bo’s open challenge to the leading figures in the current government, however, meant that in the absence of rules the only way to block him was a pileup. So when Bo’s right-hand man fled to a US consulate seeking asylum, Bo’s enemies pounced, even though they knew the resulting scandal would damage the party’s image.
“This case has revealed a series of flaws in the Chinese political system,” says Cheng Li, a prominent analyst of Chinese elite politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It’s a wake-up call. But if the Communist Party continues to pretend that this is just an exception instead of seeking reasons for what happened … the party’s days will be numbered. They have to reform before it is too late.”
Lessons from the Bo Xilai affair
Possible reforms, Dr. Li suggests, might include presenting more candidates than there are seats for the 25-member Politburo and for the Standing Committee, implementing the constitutional provision that not even the Communist Party is above the law, and opening up the official media so that it becomes a reliable source of information to rival the rumors that proliferate on social media.
Other analysts, however, suspect that the scandal — far from prompting reform — will provoke an even tighter closing of ranks at the top, stifling debate.
“The Bo Xilai affair has served as a cautionary tale and a reminder to top leaders that they have let factional politics go too far,” argues Zhang Jian, a professor of politics at Peking University. “Factionalism must not rock the ship … or they could hurt themselves.”
Factionalism, however, does stir policy debate.
“The solidarity of the top leadership at the moment is unprecedented,” says Professor Zhang, and he predicts that “the Bo Xilai case will be very bad for the general development of political democracy in China.” The party’s most urgent task is to reinforce its legitimacy in the public eye, says Li. “Public confidence in the leadership has been damaged by the allegations of corruption.”
Party propagandists are presenting the Bo Xilai scandal as an isolated incident that will be properly dealt with. “Whoever has broken the law will be handled in accordance with law and will not be tolerated, no matter who is involved,” The People’s Daily declared last week.
This presents the authorities with a quandary, however. How publicly should they present the evidence against Bo and his wife, should they come to trial? On one hand, unless the prosecution presents a convincing case, party cadres may fear they are witnessing a return to the old ways of the Cultural Revolution, when political enemies were framed on luridly concocted charges. But too detailed an explanation of the corruption, money laundering, and other allegations made against the couple would prove extremely embarrassing to the party.
“This whole incident is full of plots and schemes,” complains Li Datong, a former editor of a Communist Party youth weekly. “There has been no transparency. If the leadership were to allow an open trial, that would represent real progress.”