All the upheaval on social media can be traced to one man: Bo Xilai, the most polarizing and fascinating figure in Chinese politics, and his (foreseeable) political demise.
When the Prince Was Not Red
Bo was introduced as the “Red Prince” in Tea Leaf Nation’s pilot coverage of S-election 2012. While Bo has always been a “princeling” (since his father was a high level official in Mao and Deng’s days) and always been colorful, he was not always “red.” Bo was pegged as a rising star back in the 1990′s and early 2000′s as the party boss of a major city and then a large province. In 2004, Beijing beckoned its favorite son home and he was appointed the Minister of Commerce.
With an actor’s good looks and a showman’s flair, Bo naturally attracted the limelight. Talks about Bo as the next heir gained steam. Bo became “China’s only celebrity politician,” according to the Sinocentric blog. If China had democratic elections, Bo Xilai would seem to have the whole package of a successful candidate: eloquence, charisma, competence, family connections, and governing credentials. The Force was strong with this one.
What may play well on camera or in front of common people, however, backfired for Bo. What really counted in China’s political system were consensus-building and group rule, and leaders who may develop cult of personality are usually frowned upon by the powers that be. “In Taiwan, candidates canvass for votes in the heat of an election, but over here in China, they knock on doors of Party elders,” said @佛笑的面具.
In 2007, Bo was demoted to Chongqing, a major municipality but nevertheless considered a backwater compared to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong. The then-obscure Xi Jinping came out of left field and snatched the title of Heir Apparent.
Turning to the Dark Side
Jolted but still power-hungry, and unable to rise through electoral democracy, Bo turned to the Dark Side of demagoguery. Bo shrewdly retooled himself and started the double-campaign to stamp out alleged organized crime and to bring back Mao-era brainwashing with “red” songs and a propaganda-heavy media agenda.
The transformation was complete; Anakin Skywalker was dead and Darth Vader was born. Bo’s stature and power grew considerably after his makeover into the standard-bearer for the conservatives, who believe “leftist” policies dating from Mao’s era are needed to correct the ills in Chinese society today.
Almost overnight, one China fell in love with Bo and the other abhorred him. Chongqing residents reported greater satisfaction with safer streets. Victims of his campaigns complained of torture and gross abuse of power. Conservatives put him on a pedestal as the hero who brought back the spirit of true Communism. Liberals accused him of trying to imitate Mao, who persecuted Bo’s own father.
Controversy over Bo’s “Chongqing model” can be glimpsed from this discussion among netizens, circa January 2012:
- @比萨陈: My father-in-law went to Chongqing for a relative’s wedding, and asked taxi drivers, family members, hotel workers, basically people from all walks of life about Bo and his “sing red and stamp out black” campaigns, and the verdict: raving reviews and universal praises. Why is there such a big difference [with outside perceptions of Chongqing]?
- @Bella-Bella: How can people praise Bo? Officials like him are the scariest. They care nothing about the law and manipulate the media. They put their personal will above everything else. The ordinary people don’t understand that and only see the immediate benefit, but they don’t know that these guys can turn around and put you in hell at their whim. Don’t have illusions about wise saviors. We need to put power in a cage with democracy and the rule of law, and achieve sustainable growth.
- @e时传祥: You can’t deny that Bo has done good things, but the problem is the way he does it. If he does it through dictatorship, it’s a double-edged sword. That was the way things were done from 1949 to 1979 [before reforms].
End of the Road?
Love him or hate him, before February 2012 Bo’s name was on almost all of the lists for StanComm in S-election 2012. He was again within reach of the brass ring.
No one had expected him to fall this fast and this hard. According to Weibo rumors, when Bo sensed that he might be investigated for corruption from the higher-ups in Beijing, he cut off one of his most loyal henchman, Police Chief Wang Lijun. In retribution, Wang escaped from Bo’s territory in disguise and went to the American consulate in a nearby city with the mother lode of dirt on Bo.
The theory goes that Wang either wanted to apply for asylum at the American consulate or be assured of safe passage to Beijing. Wang walked out of the consulate “of his own volition,” according to the U.S. State Department, and was taken to Beijing by the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s equivalent of the CIA and FBI rolled into one. Netizens even posted the boarding records of Wang and the MSS bureau chief who flew with him (they flew commercial, first class). Beijing is now investigating the incident.
As of the time of publication, rumors have Bo writing obsequious letters to the StanComm taking responsibility for the incident and offering his resignation. His picture has not appeared on the front pages of Chongqing newspapers even after an important meeting with Canadian PM Stephen Harper. The Dark Side may need to pull serious voodoo to save Bo’s career (but it cannot be ruled out).
Law professor Wang Jiangyu (@王江雨的聊斋) tweeted this summary,
“Governor Bo started his political career early in life, and for a while his fame exceeded that of the Heir Apparent [Xi Jinping]. He had set his sights higher than the sky. His records in the city of Dalian and the Ministry of Commerce were great and his reputation was good too. Even in Chongqing, his projects to improve people’s livelihood were better than those in most other places. Too bad he is overly ambitious, and became almost unscrupulous in recent years in using an ideology that is out of sync with the mainstream. His behaviors have offended other high level officials and enraged intellectuals everywhere. He is also unable to rein in his son. So he has become a target for everyone. This is his own doing, but also quite tragic.”