The Case for The “Chongqing Model?”

With all eyes on Hefei for the murder trial of Gu Kailai on Thursday, and with speculation swirling over the likely fate of her husband and former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, Foreign Policy’s Kevin Lu looks beyond the fog of the scandal and makes the case that Bo’s “Chongqing Model” of social and economic development worked:

In Chongqing, the Bo administration improved public security, rebuilt infrastructure, pulled in foreign direct investment and pioneered several policy innovations on urbanization. The smash black campaign, while widely seen as infringing on civil liberties and private property rights, significantly reduced street crime. Local SOEs in Chongqing, according to Ministry of Finance data, contribute 15-20 percent of their profits to the government, the highest in China, which in turn funds infrastructure and social programs intended to improve people’s standard of living. Mayor Huang Qifan (who kept his position) stated in March that his target for SOE profit-sharing is 30 percent in 2015. A $1.5 billion a year tree-planting program, now widely criticized by Chinese media as wasteful, made a huge difference to the ambience of an industrial city. In the past five years, Chongqing’s GDP grew at an average of 15.8 percent annually, compared with 10.5 percent for China as a whole, helping to close the gap between Chongqing and China’s other centrally managed municipalities.

Bo promoted Chongqing as the place to experiment various policies directed at solving China’s age-old urban-rural tensions. By 2011, Chongqing had spent $15 billion in building 13 million square meters of public housing for poor families, with plans for a further 40 million square meters that could house up to 2 million people. The city has also issued over 3 million hukou, or urban residence permits, to rural migrant workers, giving them access to health care, education and social security — a practice unheard of elsewhere in China. It is these substantive measures, not the populist campaigns he also exploited, that have made Bo’s policies popular in Chongqing, even after his downfall. The Chongqing model is a daring experiment in using state policy and state resources to advance the interests of ordinary people, while maintaining the role of the party and state.

In the short term, the Chongqing model will remain tarnished both inside and outside China by the backlash against Bo’s political ambitions and policy missteps, as well as the charges against his wife. But when the dust settles and the fog clears, the Chongqing model may be remembered as a useful social and economic experiment that tackled the tensions between state and people lying at the heart of modern China, providing a credible alternative while China struggles to rebalance its economy and policies. While Bo’s political career is clearly over, he may also be remembered as a maverick risk-taker for tackling these challenges — whatever his personal motives.

Marketplace’s Rob Schmitz reports that Bo Xilai still has fans in Chongqing, even if some of his environmentally damaging mega projects lacked a compelling economic rationale other than GDP growth.

Meanwhile, the current issue of the Hoover Institution’s China Leadership Monitor contemplates the implications of Bo’s demise from several perspectives. Alice Miller draws parallels between Bo and two other notable leadership purges, those of former Shanghai party boss Chen Liangyu (2006) and former Beijing municipal party chief Chen Xitong (1999), in arguing that Bo’s removal likely strengthens party unity heading into the 18th Party Congress this fall. Joseph Fewsmith writes that it may be too soon to see the real implications of Bo’s case on elite party politics:

The impact of the Bo Xilai case—and of ongoing bargaining about which we know nothing—seems likely to result in compromise at the 18th Party Congress. The most likely way to compromise will be to promote eligible (by age) members of the Politburo to the PBSC, though whether to promote five or seven still seems to be in some dispute. Still, the possibility of a “helicopter” promotion directly to the PBSC cannot be ruled out—both Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping were promoted in such fashion. But most of the bargaining is likely to focus on the members of the Politburo rather than its standing committee. Of the 15 remaining members, 7 are expected to retire for reasons of age. If only 5 are promoted to the PBSC, that leaves 12–13 openings for new faces on the Politburo, and more if 7 are promoted. These are the people who will have an impact on Chinese politics in five years, when some of them will be promoted to the PBSC, and in 10 years, when others will be promoted. So the full impact of the Bo Xilai case may not be understood for many years.

Also for the China Leadership Monitor, James Mulvenon explores Bo’s ties to the military and speculates about what his downfall might mean for party-military relations:

After examining the facts, two things seem relatively clear. First, Bo paid close attention throughout his career to cultivating close relationships with local military elites and high-ranking princelings. Second, the breathless reporting of military purges and coups following Bo’s dismissal appears to be the product of the feverish imaginations of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Falungong journalists.

In the end, Bo Xilai’s fall from power will have a mixed impact upon Chinese party military relations. While the fundamental dynamic between the CCP and the PLA will remain unchanged, the discipline inspections of Bo’s activities will likely negatively affect the career prospects of individual PLA officers, especially senior elites like Liu Yuan and Zhang Haiyang, as well as local military leaders in the Chengdu Military Region. It would not be surprising, for instance, if neither Liu nor Zhang is promoted in the fall personnel moves, at the very least because of the bad publicity they have received during the Bo political theater. In this way, the Bo purge bears greater resemblance to that of Yang Baibing in 1992 than the purges of Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong in 1995 and Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu in 2006, since “neither of the Chens enjoyed anywhere near Bo’s level of support from the army.”62 It is also not clear how Bo’s purge and its PLA fallout will affect the leadership transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping. Some analysts, for example, have speculated that the questions raised during the investigations will compel Hu to stay on as CMC Chairman past the 18th Party Congress. Yet the largely ephemeral nature of many of the supposed PLA factional behaviors after Bo’s removal strongly suggests that their impact upon the handover of CMC authority will be marginal at best.