Bo Xilai: Asset or Liability?

Reflecting on recent trips to Chongqing and Dalian, two of the cities where Politburo Standing Committee hopeful Bo Xilai carved out his political career, The Diplomat’s Peter Martin makes the case for Bo’s promotion in this year’s CCP leadership transition:

What’s interesting about Bo as a figure in Chinese politics is that he’s a true public politician in a country governed by stale technocrats. Bo knows how to make a speech and he knows how to put together public campaigns to bolster his popularity. At a time when the CCP is deeply concerned about connecting with Chinese citizens, the party may hope to harness his dynamism and campaigning abilities to bolster its own legitimacy.

But there are also huge risks associated with Bo’s promotion. Nationally, Bo is a controversial figure and in many ways a political liability, both personally and politically. Politically, he is prone to grandstanding and seems too keen to stress his personal profile in a system which, since Deng Xiaoping’s exit from China’s political stage, has stressed collective decision-making and consensus over personality and division. This is more than just a matter of style: China’s leaders see public unity as absolutely essential to maintaining power and avoiding a repeat of the leadership splits that contributed to the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. Also, Bo’s espousal of red rhetoric conflict strikes many as cynical and self-serving. It also contrasts especially strongly with the flamboyant behavior of Bo’s son, Bo Guagua.

Regardless, Bo is a rare entity in Chinese politics. He’s a dynamic and charismatic figure capable of executing effective political campaigns and a generating genuine public enthusiasm. There’s no doubt that he has the potential to be a huge liability, but in a political system that many inside and outside of China see as increasingly outdated and unresponsive, China’s leadership may well decide that Bo’s promotion is a risk worth taking.

The Financial Times’ John Gapper argued last week that China’s princelings, a group of that includes Bo Xilai, should not rule the economy alone if China hopes to balance social reform with economic liberalization. See also additional CDT coverage of China’s princelings and Bo Xilai.