Xi Speech Published as Bo Fallout Continues

Following the dismissal of former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai on Thursday, The Chinese Communist Party’s flagship magazine published a speech given earlier this month by president-in-waiting Xi Jinping which calls for greater purity and unity in the party. From The Wall Street Journal:

In an essay published Friday, Vice President Xi urged fellow leaders not to “play to the crowd” or “seek fame and fortune” and to abide by a consensus-based decision-making system that has evolved since the death of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976.

Mr. Xi’s remarks were seen as a clear rejection of the populist, autocratic and nakedly ambitious leadership style of Bo Xilai, who was dismissed as party chief of the southwestern megacity of Chongqing on Thursday amid a scandal involving his former police chief.

Wen Hai, an online commentator for the People’s Daily, another party mouthpiece, praised Mr. Xi’s essay as “timely” and said each leader should understand they were “just one member of the party organization” and preserve a culture of mutual respect and consensus-building.

“One person cannot have the final say in the national leadership, but that was what was happening in Chongqing,” said Chen Ziming, an independent political analyst in Beijing. “That is why Xi Jinping made this point in the essay.”

Xi originally gave the speech on March 1, at the opening ceremony for the spring semester of the Party School of the Central Committee, of which he is also president. Even though he didn’t mention Bo by name, Chinese politics expert David Goodman told The Telegraph that Xi still sent a telling message:

“What happened under Mao (Zedong) was that individual whim rather party organisation came to rule,” said Goodman, professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney.

“The Cultural Revolution smacks to many people of a lawlessness and the whims of a single ruler. How does that relate to Bo? He laid himself open to the criticism by going for an open, charismatic (style of) politics.”

Meanwhile, reactions to Bo’s sacking and speculation over his future continue to emerge. The Telegraph’s Tania Branigan joined the Sinica podcast team on Friday to review what happened to Bo. The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon reports that the news has delighted the country’s liberals, but The Wall Street Journal cautions that Bo’s exit does not guarantee ascension for a more liberal figure such as Guangdong provincial party chief Wang Yang:

It could in fact galvanize efforts by figures associated with Mr. Bo to secure seats on the new Politburo Standing Committee—which currently has nine members—alongside Vice President Xi Jinping, the man expected to take over as party chief in a once-a-decade succession process in the fall.

The leadership contest paints a picture of a party at a crossroads and increasingly divided between those, like Mr. Bo, who advocate a stronger state role in the economy and society, and others, like Mr. Wang, who champion the private sector, civil society and the rule of law.

Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington suggested that the big winners could be from the same faction as Mr. Bo. “It’s like the Republican primary—if one Republican loses, the other Republicans gain.”

Still, Reuters called Wang Yang the “obvious beneficiary” of Bo’s self-destruction on Friday when it highlighted nine leaders whose prospects for a seat on the powerful Politburo Standing Committee have now improved, such as Bo’s replacement Zhang Dejiang. Others mentioned in the piece include Wang Yang, vice premier Wang Qishan, propaganda minister Liu Yunshan, party organizational department head Li Yuanchao, Tianjin party chief Zhang Gaoli, and Shanghai party head Yu Zhengshan. Those seven would, in theory, fill out the new Standing Committee lineup alongside Xi and Li Keqiang, who is expected to take over for Premier Wen Jiabao when the next generation of leaders assumes power next year. A “bolder” candidate, according to Reuters, would be “princeling” Liu Yandong – she has ties to President Hu Jintao’s Youth League faction and, if chosen, would be the first woman on the Standing Committee since 1949.

In the Diplomat, David Cohen writes that Bo’s scandal-plagued descent started long-before top lieutenant Wang Lijun disappeared amid speculation of defection and a falling out in Chongqing last month, and claims that the move against Bo could not have been made lightly:

Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao are likely organizers of Bo’s downfall as well – they have, unlike the majority of the Standing Committee, avoided visiting Chongqing during Bo’s tenure, echoing Hu’s pointed avoidance of Shanghai in the years before the Chen Liangyu incident, and Bo’s removal from the contest for elevation to the Standing Committee seems to clear the way for an important Hu ally, Guangdong party chief Wang Yang. Wen’s remarkably direct criticism of Bo Tuesday further suggested a strong personal animus.

But ditching Bo was clearly a consensus move, and everyone had good reason to support it. Peter Martin reported in this space in January on Bo’s success in forming an independent base of support in Chongqing and Dalian – if Bo had kept this intact into the Xi administration, he could easily have become a problematic rival. If he had succeeded in forcing his way onto the Standing Committee, he would have created an alternative route to power, permanently undermining the Party’s control of the government through its absolute power to make appointments.

The timing of Bo’s downfall suggests that China’s top leaders took these threats seriously – with the leadership transition in October and ongoing provincial appointments, Bo could have been quietly eased out if it hadn’t been necessary to make an example. The choice to fire Bo during the National People’s Congress catches him in Beijing and ensures that he won’t travel back to Chongqing – suggesting that Chinese leaders may have feared another Wang Lijun-style getaway.

Also in The Diplomat, Claremont McKenna College’s Minxin Pei writes that the frustrations that boosted Bo’s popularity could come back to haunt the party:

Obviously, the shortlist for the next Politburo Standing Committee has to be redrawn. In all likelihood, Bo’s elimination from the race should make the process less contentious and may help produce a more “harmonious” new leadership team. However, the damage to the party’s prestige by this episode is incalculable. Since the Tiananmen crackdown in June 1989, the party has worked hard to maintain a façade of unity within the top leadership. A key lesson drawn by the party from the Tiananmen catastrophe was that political infighting among top leaders emboldened pro-democracy protesters and paralyzed the party’s decision-making process. Splits within the leadership must be avoided at all cost. The Bo incident shows that the divisions within the party are real and deep. At the moment, it’s unclear what Bo’s friends and backers will do, but they surely must not have been very happy with this dramatic turn of events. An intriguing question is whether Bo and his supporters have enough staying power to make a comeback during a future political crisis and take on the Party. Could Bo turn into a Chinese Boris – Boris Yeltsin, that is?


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