The Revenge of Wen Jiabao

For Foreign Policy, John Garnaut takes an in-depth look at the thirty-year history between Premier Wen Jiabao, his mentor Hu Yaobang, and former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, which culminated in the recent dramatic dismissal of Bo:

This October, the Communist Party will likely execute a once-in-a-decade leadership transition in which President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen hand over to a new team led by current Vice President Xi Jinping. The majority of leaders will retire from the elite Politburo Standing Committee, and the turnover will extend down through lower tiers of the Communist Party, the government, and the military. Wen hopes his words influence who gets key posts, what ideological course they will set, and how history records his own career.

Wen Jiabao and Bo Xilai have long stood out from their colleagues for their striking capacities to communicate and project their individual personalities and ideologies beyond the otherwise monochromatic party machine. The two most popular members of the Politburo, they are also the most polarizing within China’s political elite. They have much in common, including a belief that the Communist Party consensus that has prevailed for three decades — “opening and reform” coupled with uncompromising political control — is crumbling under the weight of inequality, corruption, and mistrust. But the backgrounds, personalities, and political prescriptions of these two crusaders could not be more different.

Bo has deployed his prodigious charisma and political skills to attack the status quo in favor of a more powerful role for the state. He displayed an extraordinary capacity to mobilize political and financial resources during his four and a half year tenure as the head of the Yangtze River megalopolis of Chongqing. He transfixed the nation by smashing the city’s mafia — together with uncooperative officials, lawyers, and entrepreneurs — and rebuilding a state-centered city economy while shamelessly draping himself in the symbolism of Mao Zedong. He sent out a wave of revolutionary nostalgia that led to Mao quotes sent as text messages, government workers corralled to sing “red songs,” and old patriotic programming overwhelming Chongqing TV.

From his leftist or “statist” perch, Bo has been challenging the “opening and reform” side of the political consensus that Deng Xiaoping secured three decades ago. Wen Jiabao, meanwhile, who plays the role of a learned, emphatic, and upright Confucian prime minister, has been challenging the other half of Deng consensus — absolute political control — from the liberal right. He has continuously articulated the need to limit government power through rule of law, justice, and democratization. To do this, he has drawn on the symbolic legacies of the purged reformist leaders he served in the 1980s, particularly Hu Yaobang, whose name he recently helped to “rehabilitate” in official discourse. As every Communist Party leader knows, those who want a stake in the country’s future must first fight for control of its past.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports on how Bo’s ouster is playing out among different factions of the Communist Party as the leadership prepares for a transition of power later this year:

…The ouster of Bo Xilai, the populist icon formerly in charge of the southwestern megacity of Chongqing, has spurred weeks of frenzied internal politicking and a rare dissenting vote within the Politburo Standing Committee, according to interviews with publishers, academics and analysts tied to the Communist Party’s upper echelons or its powerful families.

They say that the outward calm is tenuous and was achieved only after China’s leadership team of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao appealed to party elders for support and yielded important posts in Chongqing to representatives of other influential political blocs.

“They want everyone to believe that the top level has no problem — that there’s no split and no struggle,” said Jin Zhong, publisher of the influential China-watching magazine Open, in Hong Kong. “But this is a false impression.”

According to people briefed by central party officials, Mr. Bo is being confined to his house in Beijing, watched by the Central Guard Bureau, a unit of the People’s Liberation Army under control of the party’s General Office. He faces a disciplinary investigation over a range of allegations of corruption and abuse of power, these people say. His wife, a noted lawyer, is under more formal detention in connection with some of those allegations.

Read more about Bo Xilai via CDT.

March 29, 2012 10:39 PM
Posted By:
Categories: Politics