Bo Xilai, Politics and the CCP
TIME’s Fareed Zakaria reminds China watchers that for all the deserved attention given by the media to escaped blind activist Chen Guangcheng in recent days, the Bo Xilai saga remains “part of a much larger and potentially disruptive trend in China.” In his column for the magazine, Zakaria traces the history of the Chinese Communist Party and examines why Bo’s rise and fall has injected politics back into the regime:
We don’t much think of the party as a political organization these days. It is dominated by technocrats obsessed with economic and engineering challenges. These men–and they are almost all men–are comfortable talking about detailed economic and technical data, but they are not skilled politicians, adept at handling large crowds or palace intrigue. This apolitical system is a recent phenomenon and the outcome of a conscious decision by the founder of modern China, Deng Xiaoping.
Eventually, politics had to re-emerge. China has reached a level of growth and development at which the big questions it faces are not technical engineering puzzles but deep political, philosophical ones.
Bo represented the revival of politics in at least two ways. In a system of colorless men, he was charismatic, conniving and political. He was comfortable in front of crowds, eager to push himself forward, and he rubbed against the grain of consensus decisionmaking. Money was, as in U.S. politics, the grease that smoothed Bo’s rise. But he also represented the “new left,” an ideological movement that emphasized social and cultural solidarity, the power of the state and other populist issues. Whether he truly believed in these stances is irrelevant. Like all good political entrepreneurs, he saw a market for these ideas in modern China and filled it. And there are other would-be leaders–military nationalists, economic liberals, even more-full-throated populists–who are debating China’s future furiously, though privately, in Beijing and Shanghai.
Bo’s ouster is the most significant purge in the party’s top ranks since Tiananmen Square. The party may hope that the People’s Republic, as it did after that earlier upheaval, can return to its efficient and steady technocratic path. But China has changed too much. And politics in China is xenophobic, populist, nationalist, messy and certainly unpredictable–like politics everywhere.
TIME subscribers can also read Hannah Beech’s cover story on Bo Xilai in the current issue of the magazine. Bloomberg Businesweek’s Bruce Einhorn writes that Bo’s family is just one of many in which the relatives of leaders have advanced and enriched themselves on the coattails of their family’s status, but questions whether the scandal will really threaten the ability of future “princeling” families to do the same:
Will Bo’s downfall threaten his princeling brethren? Stan Abrams, law professor at Central University of Finance and Economics in Beijing, believes they’re feeling some pressure but don’t need to worry too much. “Princelings are being read the riot act in terms of conspicuous consumption,” he says. With the Bo affair still unfolding, the princelings at SOEs might need to lay low for a while. “Their decision making is going to be under more scrutiny than usual,” says Abrams, who believes foreign investors hoping to make big deals with state companies will need to be patient. “Making a deal with an SOE might be a little tougher these days,” he says. “Things that were sensitive before are even more sensitive now—and dealing with an SOE is always more sensitive.”
Don’t hold your breath waiting for the princelings to give up their power in the post-Bo world. “I don’t think one or two [high]-profile cases are going to change anything,” says Abrams, who is author of the China Hearsay blog. “These people are still the sons and daughters of those in charge. Why would they change the whole system? They will do whatever they can to make sure they are protected. [That means] you demonize the folks who screw up and keep the rest running as smoothly as possible. Anything else overturns the system, which is not something they want to do.”
On a lighter note, The Wall Street Journal reports that the political thunderstorm on the mainland has created a business opportunity for Hong Kong’s bookstores, with bestselling books boasting titles such as Bo Xilai’s Crimes, The Inside Story of Bo Xilai’s Fall, and Chongqing’s Department of Murder capturing the intrigue of local residents and mainland visitors:
Such books have sprung up across Hong Kong in the past month and are being sold everywhere, from newspaper stalls to airport shops. The sudden proliferation seems astonishing, given Mr. Bo was purged from the Communist Party just over three weeks ago. Still, many of the books (which are issued by Hong Kong or overseas publishers) recycle material that’s been previously written about Mr. Bo—including numerous newspaper articles and other content culled from the Internet.
“The books are written with varying quality,” says Ms. Zheng frankly. “Not all of what they publish may be true.”
These days, she adds, there’s too much repetition among books, and much of the content is stale. Still, that doesn’t stop mainland customers from loading up with reading material. Near the cash register, customers flick through their purchases and trade fears that their books might get confiscated if spotted by customs officials, who often seize any books that appear to contain sensitive information about Chinese leadership. Some readers go so far as to put different book jackets on their contraband purchases, the better to avoid getting them confiscated.
Most customers just pick up one or two volumes, but one man—who didn’t want to talk about his purchases—walked out this morning with a stack of ten titles. “People will make special trips to Hong Kong just to buy these books,” comments Ms. Zheng. “Some just pick titles randomly, but some of them really understand Chinese politics better than us and know what they’re looking for,” she says. Previous popular releases include titles like Tombstone—an acclaimed two-volume, over 1,000-page expose by a former Xinhua journalist of China’s government-caused famine in the 1950s—as well as China’s Best Actor: Wen Jiabao, a highly critical account of current China’s premier, both banned on the mainland. Another book, The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang, which chronicles the memoirs of Zhao, who was purged and kept under house arrest for 15 years after the 1989 Tiannamen Square protests, has sold some 130,000 copies in Hong Kong since its 2009 publication.
See also a post on China Beat by Xujun Eberlein, who was born in Chongqing and writes about how the city’s people view Bo Xilai.