Every society has its defining moments, and China is no exception to the rule. In recent decades alone there has been the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the start of reform under Deng Xiaoping in 1978, the Tiananmen incident of 1989, and the Olympic games of 2008. Now, the dismissal of the high-profile politician Bo Xilai in 2012 is and will be remembered as an event of equivalent significance.
The fall of Bo Xilai marks a new phase of how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does politics and communicates with the Chinese public. Bo’s biggest legacy to the party will relate less to the corruption and over-ambition that caused his exit - for these have precedents in its upper reaches. His real gift will turn out to be to force the leadership to speak in a new way and relate differently to Chinese people. In itself this will be transformational.
This might seem an exaggerated claim, especially based on what little is is known so far: that Bo Xilai has been suspended from membership of the party and the poliburo, and thus his once glittering career is shattered. It is also true that the CCP’s disciplinary procedures have permitted reversal of such verdicts in the past. But that was a long time ago; in Chinese politics after Deng Xiaoping, there are no second acts.
An abrupt end
The scale of the change underway can be measured by two aspects of the story. The first is the way the Bo Xilai affair touches on China's power-elite. Bo was himself a rising star within this elite: a charismatic, handsome and able son of a leader of the 1949 revolution who had moved up the political hierarchy to lead Chongqing, a massive provincial-level city in southwest China. There he implemented an approach to social and economic development that was at odds with China's orthodoxy since 1989, emphasising the state and social development more than the market and economic goals per se.
A key part of this policy orientation was a political-communication strategy that enlisted the emotional pull of "red songs" unheard since their heyday in the late Maoist period. The public seemed enthusiastic both about the improvements to their lives and the choral accompaniment. By the end of 2011, it seemed certain that Bo Xilai had the momentum to secure a place on the standing committee of the politburo - the summit of China's new leadership - which was to be chosen in late 2012.
But in early February 2012, the sudden flight of Chongqing's police chief, Wang Lijun - once Bo's most trusted lieutenant - to the United States consulate in neighbouring Chengdu punctured his progress. Wang took with him documents which (he claimed) contained evidence to disgrace Bo Xilai and his family. The defection, albeit short-lived, was the prelude to a cascade of charges of corruption, torture and violence under Bo's administration of Chongqing. The revelations inevitably tarnished the image of a national leadership that, since the elevation of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao in 2002, has managed to preserve itself from scandalous exposure of this kind.
The second aspect of the Bo Xilai story its its implications for the conduct of political communications within the People’s Republic of China. The leadership of the party has tried to handle the drama through the usual mechanisms of management and control. It formally announced that Bo Xilai, pending investigation in late March, was to be suspended as a party member. Then, through inner-party briefings, it made clear that he would be disciplined. This was reinforced by the state media in the familiar, regimented way.
This time, however, there has been strong resistance both to the message and the process - not just from those who supported what Bo Xilai stood for in Chongqing but more widely across the internet, social media and even in the less official print media. The proponents of accountable politics contend that this is a revengeful power-struggle rather than a contest about justice. This counter-current is so fierce that, in a remarkable development, the party was forced on 19 April to respond. The official state news agency published a commentary proclaiming that "criminal cases should not be interpreted as political struggle" and that Bo Xilai is being investigated for "disciplinary violations".
This degree of additional elaboration is unprecedented: the signal of a desire for greater legitimacy. In the old days, the party said things once and that was it. Now it has to argue its case.
A tough legacy
Just as striking, however, is that it may well not be enough. The party’s handling of Bo's dismissal has increased both awareness of and cynicism about the conduct of politics in China. Bo Xilai and the politics of his downfall are being discussed everywhere - and many, far more numerous than his sympathisers, believe that he has been "framed". They hold that the way his dismissal has been handled indicates that the party remains addicted to old-fashioned power-politics, and is visibly unable to adapt to manage (let alone to lead) the new era of political communications (see "China's language deficit", 8 February 2012).
The leadership around Hu Jintao has until now performed in a disciplined, regulated, and unified way. This has led some to see the Bo Xilai drama as a clever plan hatched by the president and his supporters to take out a rival. But it is far more likely that they were as surprised as anyone, and as little in charge.
For today, Hu and his colleagues face similar problems to those of Barack Obama and other western leaders - governing without being able to control either the message or the messenger, and being obliged increasingly to negotiate with a complex and greatly diversified public and media world.
Bo Xilai was the first of the new generation to experiment with a more personal, emotional way of speaking to China's people. If the leaders that remain want to secure their legitimacy for very much longer, they will need to learn some of his skills.
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