Bo Xilai is down, but is he out? No one outside the inner core of the Chinese Communist party leadership knows for sure. Perhaps even those inside do not yet know. The future of Bo, until Thursday the powerful party secretary of Chongqing, is still being decided. He has not lost membership of the politburo and is not officially under arrest – at least not yet. But why is his downfall, or at least his disgrace, being played out in slow motion?
It is all about the political system and the nature of politics in the People’s Republic, which is consultative Leninist in nature. To bring someone as senior and powerful as Bo down is highly painful for the party, which is the establishment in China <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/china>. Factional divisions and interest groups within the party mean that delicate negotiation and balancing need to be undertaken before the fate of someone like Bo can be decided. It is not up to General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, while the general public can only be spectators.
We knew Bo was in trouble when his former key lieutenant and security chief, Wang Lijun, sought asylum in the US consulate in Chengdu last month and was taken to Beijing – against the wishes of Bo. That his trouble continued was confirmed when he failed to appear for a day at the National People’s Congress last week.
We further know that either a deal was made or he fought back when he then hosted a press conference in Beijing. We also know that it was not over when Premier Wen specifically warned the Party faithful on Wednesday that if political reforms (ie the Hu-Wen approach) were not faithfully implemented, the risk of a new Cultural Revolution would re-emerge.
Bo is the only truly charismatic top-level leader China has had since Deng Xiaoping died in 1997. Only a powerful figure like him would have any chance of launching something like a Cultural Revolution, which was about utilising and mobilising the general public to seize power from the Communist party. By mentioning the Cultural Revolution explicitly, as he did on Wednesday, Wen was warning others in the Party of the potential damage Bo could bring if he were allowed to stay in power. This was the signal to get Bo.
But Hu and Wen cannot just sack Bo from all top offices. It would have implications for the balancing of different factions and vested interests in the party. Bringing Bo down has implications for those top leaders from privileged backgrounds like Bo, known popularly as the princelings, who enjoy support from former general secretary Jiang Zemin, head of the old “Shanghai faction”. The choice of another princeling, Zhang Dejiang, to replace Bo as party secretary in Chongqing is undoubtedly part of this balancing.
The future of Bo has not yet been decided, as the party leadership needs to do more horse-trading. It will probably be settled in the next few weeks. However, this will not be the end of the matter. What is involved here is much more than the fate of Bo. It is about the jockeying for position in the leadership succession schedule for the party congress in the autumn.
Until then, there will be plenty of manoeuvring by those holding top positions and those hoping to get a seat at the standing committee of the politburo. Bo’s standing committee dream is over, but how his fate will be decided will affect the prospect of others – and with it how China will be managed in the next decade.
Steve Tsang is director of the China Policy Institute and professor of Contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham.
This article was firstly published in The Gardian under the title of ‘China’s leaders in a sweat over downfall of princeling Bo Xilai’ on Thursday 15 March 2012
Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.