Rare Political Drama in China As Chongqing Party Boss Bo Xilai Ousted
The demise of China's most charismatic politician provides further evidence of political jockeying among China's differing communist party factions.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
China's Chongqing party chief, Bo Xilai, has been dismissed following a corruption scandal involving a close aide.
The fate of Bo had been the subject of heated speculation after Chongqing's former Vice-Mayor Wang Lijun was dismissed from his post and later seen visiting the US consulate in Chengdu.
The move has shattered the façade of unity at the apex of Chinese politics, exposing ideological divides ahead of a tense political transition this year.
Bo Xilai attends National People's Congress on 14 March 2012
China today announced the dismissal of Chongqing's high-profile party chief Bo Xilai. The decision was announced by the head of the Organisation Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC)'s Central Committee, Li Yuanchao, during a meeting in Chongqing this morning. China's state-run news agency published the news at 10:00 local time, but did not reveal whether Bo had been assigned to another role or whether he would be placed under investigation. Xinhua reports that he has been replaced by Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang. Zhang studied economics in North Korea and was previously party chief in Guangdong province. He will retain his role as vice-premier overseeing China's energy, telecommunications and transport sectors.
Bo's downfall has been swift. His troubles began in February when Chongqing's vice-mayor, Wang Lijun, was relieved of his position amid rumours that he had sought refuge in the US consulate in Chengdu (see China: 9 February 2012: Rumours Abound in China over Fate of Chongqing Official). The events triggered speculation that Wang had been attempting to seek asylum and that he had information to trade on Bo. The two men had been close for more than ten years after Bo brought Wang in to oversee a high-profile crackdown on organised crime in the city that made national headlines. Wang's dismissal, therefore, raised immediate questions on the possible ramifications for the personal career ambitions of Chongqing's former party chief, particularly regarding his efforts to secure a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) ahead of the 18th National Party Congress in October this year.
News of Bo's dismissal came shortly after Premier Wen Jiabao directly criticised him during his speech at the conclusion of China's annual legislative session yesterday (see China: 14 March 2012: China's PM Pays Lip Service to Political Reform as Parliament Ends). Wen emphasised that, "The current party committee and government of Chongqing must seriously reflect on the Wang Lijun incident and learn lessons". He added that China must pursue political reform in order to prevent a repeat of the Cultural Revolution. Wen's reference to the Cultural Revolution was seen as a veiled swipe at Bo and his revival of Mao-style socialist culture in Chongqing. The strength of his statements also sparked frenzied speculation over Bo's political future after he appeared to redeem himself somewhat during a press conference in Beijing last week. At that time, Bo vehemently denied that he was under investigation in association with the Wang Lijun case but conceded failings in his leadership, stating "this was a case of negligent supervision on my part".
Outlook and Implications
Bo's crackdown in Chongqing allowed him to carve out a unique position in Chinese politics as a politician with strong mass appeal. However, his charismatic and populist style of governance sharply diverged from the traditional way in which senior politicians tend to handle themselves in public in China. Indeed, his approach of directly appealing to the public may have directly factored into his current downfall. Bo had become an increasingly contentious figure in Beijing, where primary importance is attributed to a collective decision-making style and a consensual approach to politics. At the same time, his trumpeting of the Chongqing model of development ruffled some feathers within the party, who saw him reviving unnerving traits of leftist style socialism from the 1950s and 60s. Bo had been resurrecting revolutionary songs from the Maoist era and implementing economic policies which placed greater emphasis on removing wealth disparity. The latter involved various public housing programmes, changes to the household registration system, and a notable increase in state-sector involvement in the economy.
The exact implications of Bo's dismissal for the upcoming political transition in China are not yet clear. What is known is that his personal ambitions for a seat on the PBSC are now virtually zero. Until the scandal exploded last month, Bo was seen as having a good chance of making the powerful decision-making body (see China: 18 November 2010: A Peaceful Transition? The Emergence of China's Fifth Generation Leadership). His downfall could also presage wider political turbulence among China's factions. Specifically, his demise may negatively impact on the position of the so-called New Leftists who have supported Bo's championing of "red culture" and the Chongqing economic model. Conversely, China's more liberal-minded politicians will welcome his dismissal. This group has been arguing that Bo's style of governance in Chongqing was undermining the rationale of the market economy and facilitating undue state influence. Perhaps most importantly, it is worth noting that President Hu Jintao has long harboured reservations towards Bo, suggesting that his demise may be a warning to the rising fifth generation of leaders not to veer too much towards the left as they increasingly take up the reins of power.
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