Behind Crackdown on China’s Bo Xilai

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By Shastri Ramachandaran* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NEW DELHI (IDN) - The abounding speculation over whether bribery, graft and abuse of power were the only reasons for China’s former Politburo member Bo Xilai being sentenced (on September 22) to life and stripped of his political rights and property for life is, perhaps, unlikely to be answered with any certitude for a long time. What is certain though is that, for now, the political phenomenon that was Bo Xilai is dead. So is his brand of mass politics.

Arriving in Jinan, capital of China’s northeastern province of Shadong, a day after the Intermediate People’s Court in the city handed him a life term, I found people going about their business as usual. Nothing appeared amiss in the city: the extra security at the airport could have been for any of several other reasons. There was no buzz about the sensational case, the like of which China has not witnessed in 30 years. To quote a phrase from another time and place, “not a dog barked” in Jinan, Beijing or Chongqin when Bo went down at the end of a well-choreographed trial that met every expectation of form.

Few would deny that Bo was guilty of corruption, and of abuse of power. Even so, it is difficult to accept that Bo’s case is related only to “corruption” and “abuse of power”, as made out by the party, government, media and the court in China. Politicians in office have got away with worse for “reasons of State”, and not only in China but also in other countries including India and the U.S., both democracies enjoying judicial independence.

Therefore, it would be a wilful rejection of reality to ignore the political significance of the trial given the pedigree of the now-disgraced ‘Princeling’ Bo, his family connections, charisma, his unprecedented rise to stardom, new politics and mass appeal. Above all, in the months preceding the decadal change in political leadership, there was wide expectation that Bo would become a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the supreme decision-making body of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

Therefore, the trial consigning Bo to political oblivion, cannot be delinked from his politics, his rise to prominence, his neo-Maoist mass line and his own ruthless crackdown on corruption, crime and gangsterism in Chongqing, to make the populous city of 31 million safe for its inhabitants when he lorded over it.

As the party chief of Chongqing, he was a hardliner. An economic conservative but a political populist, he stood for reforms – for moving politics and social policies back to the Left – far from the free market values rampant in today’s China. He was heavy-handed in his fight against crime syndicates, which earned him powerful enemies; he was no less driven in pushing for welfare-based politics and policies, which won him a following far beyond Chongqing.

Celebratory aplomb

The emergence of Bo as a political phenomenon was cause for both celebration (among the people) and much discomfiture (for the establishment). I recall his arriving in Beijing for the National People’s Congress and CPC Central Committee sessions in March 2010. He was greeted with such celebratory aplomb that even the stodgy official English daily, in a report headlined, “Chongqing chief gets star treatment”, gushed: “The charismatic leader of China’s largest municipality found himself at center stage on Saturday surrounded by close to 200 cheering reporters at the Great Hall of the People.”

At that time, more than one observer in Beijing told me that this could spell trouble for Bo – “It cannot be to the liking of those who expect to be at the helm soon”. And so it has proved.

That points to the first impact of Bo on the CPC and China’s political culture: The need for the new leadership to finish him and his political career, and make sure that he is neither seen nor heard. Otherwise, as widely expected, he would have got a lighter sentence; with hope of “rehabilitation”, as had happened with his father and others, including President Xi Jinping’s father. Now, Bo would be behind bars for more than the 10 years that Xi may be President.

The second effect was the court proceedings going public, through microblogs – unheard of in China. While this may have been intended to convince the world that Bo’s trial was fair, it was also to make an example of Bo to the audience at large. Equally, it was to stress President Xi’s point about “cracking down at the same time on tigers and flies” – meaning no one, ever so high, would be spared in the anti-corruption crusade. Had the case been tried in-camera, the very purpose of banishing from the political stage would have been defeated.

The third “Bo effect” occurred when he was sacked from the Party’s 25-member Central Committee in early 2012: He brought unforeseen Internet freedom to China. What President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Google together failed to achieve after a protracted campaign was accomplished by Bo. Within weeks of his dismissal from office, Bo, as an issue, exploded on the Internet unlike anything before. The Chinese found ways to beat the censors and the Net was teeming with blogs and microblogs. This short-lived media and Internet revolution set the tone for his trial being made public via blogs.

The fourth presumed impact of Bo, or rather the mass politics he represented, is President Xi harping on the need for the Party to adopt “a mass line”. The mass line – reaching the masses fighting crime and corruption and upholding rule of law – was central to Bo’s campaign. Yet, few in China would make bold to point out Xi’s campaign theme as being “Bo-ism without Bo”. In the prevalent situation, it would be impolitic if not politically suicidal to do so. That may explain Bo’s prominent supporters and commonplace followers choosing, for now at least, to lie low. Whether and when they will re-emerge from the woodwork is a moot point.

The CPC’s Central Committee Plenum to be held in November may provide indications of the long-term effects of this case. It would be premature to speculate whether Bo’s exit marks the end of this round of power play or the beginning of another to put away ‘errant heavyweights’.

*The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator based in New Delhi A version of this article first appeared on October 14, 2013 on DNA and is being published by arrangement with the writer. [IDN-InDepthNews – October 19, 2013]

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Photo: Bo Xilai | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Shastri Ramachandran's previous IDN articles:
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