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Bo Xilai's fall: echo and portent

The disgrace of a powerful party boss is a familiar theme in Chinese communist history. But the awareness of a new Chinese public means that the elite can no longer manage the problem so easily, says Kerry Brown.

Kerry Brown
12 October 2012

Who could have expected any other outcome to the Bo Xilai affair? After all, the path of the well-connected former boss of Chongqing, from contender for the standing committee of the politburo of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to political oblivion, took the same course as every other elite career in China in the last two decades that was interrupted by scandal or disgrace.

The choreography was striking. When on 28 September 2012, the official Xinhua news agency formally announced the date of the long-awaited eighteenth party congress where China's top leadership for the next five years (and possibly decade) would be chosen, the news was accompanied by a statement confirming Bo’s expulsion from the CCP. The wording was unambiguous: alongside references to corruption and larceny were accusation of illicit relations with women. For those following the arcane language of high-level Chinese politics, this could mean only one thing: that the final vestiges of protection were gone, and Bo was now going to be exposed to attack over every aspect of his personal and public life. Politically, he is dead, and the time for rumours about some kind of a comeback are over.

The brittle inheritance

What does the treatment of Bo Xilai reveal about the particular configurations of power and its dynamics in modern China? (see "Chongqing and Bo Xilai: how China works", 16 August 2012) The most powerful message may be that "the more things change, the more they stay the same". For, in the year since the scandal exploded with the dramatic flight of Bo's police-chief and ally Wang Lijun to the American consulate in Chengdu (supposedly armed with a damining dossier), the ghosts of earlier power-struggles have hovered eerily around this story,

Some are more recent than others: the serpentine movements against disgraced figures such as Chen Liangyi in Shanghai in 2007, or even Chen Xitong in Beijing a decade before. But it is a far older parallel that keeps coming into view: the case of Lin Biao, deputy and chosen successor of Mao Zedong when the cultural revolution was in full swing in the late 1960s.

The similarities shouldn't be overstated. Lin Biao was no Bo Xilai, and the context of their respective falls from grace is very different. But in the firmament of allegations against Bo there are echoes of those attached to Lin after he fled China in 1971 on a jet-plane - reputedly en route to the Soviet Union - which crashed across the border in the Mongolian People's Republic. There followed suggestions that Lin had been agitating for an internal uprising (earlier troop and aircraft movements in Beijing and Shanghai were used as further confirmation).

The arguments against the discredited Bo also resemble those directed at Lin. Just as Lin was said to have been willing to challenge the mighty Mao, the narrative was that Bo's hubris had grown so great as to embolden him to strike at the most powerful figures in the land. Even the portrayal of Bo's wife Gu Kailai - now convicted of the murder of the well-connected British businessman Neil Heywood - has close similarities to that of Lin Biao's partner Ye Qun, also reputed to be consumed by an epic ambition that made her the real driver of the drama.

The greatest parallel, however, is in the aftermath. By 1972, a few months after Lin’s fall, his once ubiquitous name had simply and without explanation disappeared. It was only in the final weeks of 1972 that a dossier of material was produced (initially for party workers, then for the wider public) and consumed with a mix of incredulity and bewilderment.

The documents were blood-curdling. A man who had been regarded as Chairman Mao's true heir and successor, spoken of in the most flowery language of which Chinese communist hagiography was capable, was now portrayed as a traitor, a renegade and a hoodlum, guilty of the worst misdemeanours: linking with treacherous foreign forces, watching corrupt foreign films, harbouring mistresses. Yet in the context of this late period of Maoist excess, the Chinese public’s reception of these charges was far from straightforward, and it was probably the treatment of Lin that led eventually to the demonstrations in Beijing in 1976 (months before Mao’s death in September of that year) and the swift repudiation of his mode of rule that ensued.

In the case of Bo too, his suspension from party positions in April 2012 and removal as party boss of Chongqing was followed by a period of official silence. The main mode of attack has been by proxy, via the murder-trial of his wife Gu Kailai and his security chief Wang Lijun (who was sentenced in September to fifteen years in jail for treachery). These indirect assaults created the mood-music for the final exclusion of Bo from public life. Now, as with Lin Biao, it will be open season - and the very different Chinese public of 2012 will be exposed to a sordid portrait of the venality, corruption and immorality of Bo’s life as a would-be leader of contemporary China.

The new factor

Here is the current leadership has a twofold problem. The first is that, compared to Mao's time, the Chinese people's receptiveness to absolutist morality-tales of once good and proper leaders turned unspeakably bad is now almost non-existent. Most citizens might be prepared to tolerate for a while the official version of the amazing Chonqqing drama, though more because its events and characters seem so far from the daily economic concerns that dominate their lives; but the notion that they will internalise the fairytale of a wicked Bo who had concealed his real nature for so long - and of a good party that exposed him - is stretching things too far (see "China's party, Bo Xilai's legacy", 6 May 2012).

The second problem, however, is exactly the same as it was in Mao's time. It can be expressed as a question: if Lin Biao or Bo Xilai was so terrible, so wicked, so bad, then why is it that you - the Chinese Communist Party leadership - were happy to have him amongst you for so long, and speak of him so well? It is not so far from this to the conclusion that the real issue is not about Lin or Bo, but about you - your failure to acknowledge reality, your willingness to tolerate someone so dangerous, your lack of concern for and even complicity in the crimes you now denounce. On this question and the dangerous trail of thought it opens, the party is so far silent.

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