HONG KONG – The Bo Xilai affair is ending, but it will be a long time before it has been put to rest.
While they are on vacation this week for National Day, China’s leaders would like nothing more than to put Bo Xilai behind them, after announcing on Friday that the former contender for China’s ruling committee was being charged with a laundry list of crimes. Bo’s wife was convicted in August of poisoning British businessman Neil Heywood.
The statement was more dramatic and emphatic than many expected. Accusing Bo of power-grabbing, corruption, and sexual dalliance over a span of three decades, the Party thereby signaled that there would be no leniency for Bo, who still has many supporters in the government and the public.
To ensure that people discuss Bo’s alleged crimes, the authorities lifted online censorship of Bo Xilai’s name and nicknames, which had been largely blocked since the crisis unfolded last spring. This weekend, searching his name brought up over 7 million results on China’s microblog, Weibo.
But instead of echoing the official line that Bo was an aberration who “invited severe punishment and deserved it” (according to an editorial in Xinhua), many netizens turned the spotlight on the system itself. “Bo didn’t just fall out of the sky. He climbed up to an eminent position step by step, with his wife, family members, and lackeys doing so many bad things for more than 10 years,” Zhao Chu, a liberal columnist, wrote in a widely-distributed posting.
Many netizens remarked that the elaborate charges against Bo were reminiscent of trumped-up show trials of the Cultural Revolution. “I hope this is the last of court politics. If the system is not changed, the Cultural Revolution could return at any time,” wrote one user in a post translated by Tea Leaf Nation. “If we don’t completely clear the history of the Cultural Revolution, there is no way that we can reform,” wrote another.
Bo’s expulsion revealed divisions within the party that will not disappear with his ouster. Despite having amassed enormous wealth, Bo remains the champion of so-called leftists, who yearn for a return to the imposed economic equality of the Mao era. His allies are typically opposed by pro-market reformers. The length of time it took authorities to hash out an agreement on Bo may reflect lingering disagreements between them.
As The Telegraph reported from sources in Chongqing, Bo’s former home, “Different powers were fighting each other” to decide what to do with him.
“The leaders were considering whether to deal with him internally, and not put him through the courts. But they realized that he still has quite a following, and could have made a comeback. So then they decided to get rid of him thoroughly.”
His trial will pass quickly, perhaps even before the party’s all-important convention on November 8th. But his legacy — of triggering the Communist Party’s greatest crisis in years — will live on.
The economy is slowing, cynicism about government corruption is growing, and tensions with neighbors in the South China Sea are rising. As Minxin Pei, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College writes in an analysis of the Bo affair, “The answer to the question of the durability of one-party rule in China is clear: its prospects are doomed.”
The question now, he writes, is whether the Party recognizes that it is in the midst of a crisis of legitimacy, and decides to manage its own transformation. With the Communist Party entering its seventh decade of rule, it would be wise to consider the two historical paths available to longterm, one-party states like China: either a managed transition to democracy, as in Taiwan and Mexico, or a Soviet-style total collapse.
Because the party is so extensively entangled with the economy, Pei concludes, “the CCP may find that a Soviet-style collapse is its only future.”
In light of this grim-seeming outlook, one charge brought against Bo seems particularly indisputable today: His fall has “badly undermined the reputation of the Party and … significantly damaged the cause of the Party and people.”