Bo Xilai’s Fall from Grace

  • CCP party flag
    Apr 25, 2012

    On April 10, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) suspended one of its fastest rising stars, Bo Xilai, from the Politburo for suspected “serious violations” of party discipline. The same day, the regime announced it also had detained Bo’s wife on “suspicion of intentional homicide” in the death of the Briton Neil Heywood. The announcements shattered the public facade of unity the Chinese leadership obsessively strives to project and put an uncomfortable spotlight on the often ostentatious lifestyles of senior Chinese leaders and their families. The case also is set against a backdrop of intense political maneuvering among party heavyweights as the leadership prepares for a once-in-a-decade leadership transition this fall.

    Q1: Why did the CCP turn on one of its most popular leaders?

    A1: As the party chief of the western Chinese megacity of Chongqing, Bo’s popularity was fueled by a distinctive mix of personal charisma and populist appeal. His calls for a fairer distribution of China’s economic gains and his throwback “red culture” campaign, which evoked themes from the Maoist era, were highly attractive to a Chinese public yearning for a dynamic champion amid the excessive commercialism of Chinese society and the perceived callousness of rapacious local party officials. To some in the senior leadership, however, Bo meant instability. His populism, arrogance, and flagrant public campaigning for advancement made him a kind of nail that stuck up in Chinese politics, one the leadership had to hammer down to underscore its ironclad commitment to consensus-oriented decisionmaking.

    Q2: How is the Chinese leadership reacting to the uproar over Bo’s ouster?

    A2: Amidst the cauldron of intense public and international interest and speculation surrounding Bo’s downfall, the leadership, at least thus far, clearly has decided to follow the principle of hanging together to avoid hanging separately. The torrent of salacious details spewing out in the official media concerning Bo and his associates’ misdeeds suggests the leadership is quite content to try to tie the entire affair around Bo’s neck and let him and his clan take the fall. That said, the leadership must be mindful that, in heaping condemnation on Bo’s head, it also runs the risk of having the Chinese public draw broader conclusions about the party’s ability to effectively supervise itself. This in turn could prompt unwelcome calls for greater transparency and a sentiment that, for all of its seeming success at delivering economic results, China’s closed political system remains dangerously fragile and subject to unforeseen internal and external shocks.

    Q3: What does the scandal portend for political reform in China?

    A3: Bo’s removal probably does not open the door to substantial reforms in the near term. Premier Wen Jiabao’s pointed criticism of Bo’s retrograde policies at the National People’s Congress session certainly seemed to raise expectations in reformist circles. That said, the regime has since sent unambiguous signals that it wants the party to focus on stability and that Bo’s failings were personal—rather than ideological—in nature. Senior CCP figures also made clear in speeches following Bo’s initial dismissal as Chongqing party boss that he was not being removed for the policies he pursued there—the so-called Chongqing model that was the rallying cry of the party’s left wing. Party liberals should be mindful of this messaging from the top leadership and instead focus their energies on using Bo’s implosion to improve their standard-bearers’ prospects for promotion at the Party Congress this fall.

    Q4: What impact is the Bo affair likely to have on the leadership transition scheduled for this fall?

    A4: In the near term, the impact on the succession will be a function of the leadership’s ability to remain unified and to move quickly beyond this episode, an unmistakable theme of the regime’s early public messaging. Recent public appearance patterns also seem to undercut media speculation that other, even more senior officials may now be under threat of possible expulsion. Nevertheless, such rumors suggest that the various regime constituencies may be seeking additional political advantage from Bo’s fall. The absence of a senior arbiter in the system to manage these tensions—similar to the role deceased paramount leader Deng Xiaoping played in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown—increases the likelihood that the leadership could become distracted from preparing for the handover. In the long run, the scandal also may inhibit vice president and heir apparent Xi Jinping’s ability to quickly consolidate power and pursue his agenda.

    Q5: How might the scandal affect Sino-U.S. relations going forward?

    A5: Given that Bo’s downfall was precipitated by his erstwhile security chief’s botched attempt to seek refuge in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, it is amazing that the case, at least thus far, has not upset bilateral ties. Indeed, the administration should be credited for managing the situation very carefully. Looking ahead, the United States must be equally diligent about avoiding even the appearance of trying to meddle in the succession or to use the scandal for diplomatic leverage. More orthodox voices in the party elite would eagerly portray any such actions as a Western plot to foment a “color revolution” in China, prompting additional introversion and retrenchment by the regime. Along similar lines, the charged political atmosphere in Beijing and concomitant distraction of the leadership means that China will be particularly sensitive to any perceived threats to its internal stability or infringements on its sovereignty. This colors how it perceives and manages developments in regional hotspots, such as the Korean peninsula, and disputed areas like the South China Sea, where trouble can quickly put Beijing at odds with Washington.

    Christopher K. Johnson is a senior adviser and holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Christopher K. Johnson