Bo’s Loss is Hu’s Gain on CMC

The Financial Times’ Kathrin Hille writes that the fall of former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai has gifted President Hu Jintao an opportunity to increase his sway over the 12-member Central Military Commission, with two “princeling” generals close to Bo now unlikely to nab open seats on China’s top military body:

“The Bo Xilai case is definitely having an impact on the military leadership succession,” said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese elite politics at the Brookings Institution. “Before, it looked like five of the 10 military members of the next CMC could have been princelings, but now it’s more likely to be three or four.”

The composition of the CMC, decided by the Politiburo standing committee, matters because it could determine the role of the armed forces in the factional battles that are currently shaking the party.

The military came under the spotlight in March after a rumour spread that Zhou Yongkang, China’s top security official, had staged a coup to “rescue” the conservative Mr Bo.

“The PLA is not … a kingmaker in the current situation,” said Cheng Li. “But in the longer term, all depends on whether the civilian leadership effectively controls the political situation.”

The Bo saga has taken twists and turns more commonly associated with a Hollywood thriller, but The Heritage Foundation’s Dean Cheng fears that “the TMZ-ization” of the scandal has clouded the West’s understanding of its larger political implications:

The Bo scandal is at least as much about the implicit threat of populism to the consensus-oriented leadership policies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as it is the tale of one exceedingly ambitious politician. It reflects the importance of better American understanding of China’s leadership structure and reinforces the need for maintaining consistent policies.

Bo had already attracted significant attention to himself over the course of his 30-year career. Rising from mayor of Dalian to governor of Liaoning Province and eventually minister of commerce, Bo often behaved more like a politician than a technocrat, including open campaigning for ever higher office—something not done in the Chinese system. Projecting a populist image, he was associated with a number of anti-corruption efforts, some conducted in conjunction with Wang Lijun. But he was also accused of being as corrupt as those he was investigating and arresting.

Beijing would like to present this entire situation as a tawdry affair of greed and ambition gone awry. The current Chinese emphasis that Bo’s fall reflects the “rule of law” in modern China further reinforces the impression that this is a matter of one individual, albeit quite senior, going too far.

But the attacks on Bo’s son and wife suggest that more is at work. Other Chinese senior Chinese leaders have fallen from power—just last year, the Chinese Railway Minister Liu Zhijun was charged with massive corruption and forced to resign. But not since the Cultural Revolution have attacks been aimed at entire families; even former premier Zhao Ziyang’s children were not targeted, although Zhao remained under house arrest from 1989 until his death in 2005. Moreover, the willingness to call attention to Bo Guagua’s luxury cars and flamboyant lifestyle jeopardizes the CCP’s overall image, as he is not unique. It also suggests higher stakes are in play.

Chen does not think that Bo’s demise will lead to reform in China. Given the apparent factional struggle taking place at the top of the party, he writes, any future leader who pushes for populist reforms will risk a Bo-style purge. The news of Bo’s sacking may have initially delighted the country’s liberals, as reported by The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon in March, but Chen’s view seems more consistent with that of a Wall Street Journal piece which cautioned at the time that Bo’s exit would not guarantee ascension for a more liberal figure such as Guangdong provincial party chief Wang Yang.

As many people rush to distance themselves from Bo and the toxic wake of his legacy, CNBC caught up with one Hong Kong-based tycoon, Allan Zeman, who saw Bo in Chongqing just weeks before his dismissal and has not abandoned his business pursuits in the southwestern Chinese metropolis:

“We went out to dinner and a propaganda show with him one night and I saw the local people really hugging him, saying what a great job he’s done, and I look at that, I look at the culture of the people,” Zeman told CNBC’s The Call on Wednesday.

Zeman is known as the “father of Lan Kwai Fong,” the Hong Kong nightlife district he helped develop. He’s pursuing plans to develop a $250 million entertainment district in Chongqing and told CNBC he would continue despite the cloud now hanging over the former mayor.

“I was looking at it and I was really amazed at how the city has changed. In fairness to (Bo) …the city really has upgraded… there’s good economic climate out there,” Zeman said, adding that he’s not that worried by the change of guard because he doesn’t think the city will shun a project that was an initiative of their past leader.

Zeman first replicated Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong nightlife district in Chengdu. He now wants to do the same in Chongqing, Hangzhou, Ningbo and Qingdao.

“When you go to some of these secondary cities, after seven at night, after dinner with the government officials, there’s nothing to do. You go to sleep. I was in Ningbo last week, there’s really nothing to do. They’re crying out for an area like Lan Kwai Fong.”