One of the most common shortcomings in U.S. thought on China is overgeneralization, the tendency to see diverse incidents as the concerted actions of a monolithic super state. In the case of Bo Xilai, however, the problem has been the opposite: Numerous ideas without a central theme.
The New York Times has focused its coverage on the scandalous aspects of Bo’s downfall, examining his loss of political office alongside the brutal execution of his “Smash Black” (anti-crime) campaign, the suspicious death of British businessman Neil Heywood, the potential involvement of Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, and the plight of his police chief Wang Lijun, who was apparently demoted for conducting an investigation on Bo himself and subsequently sought asylum at a U.S. consulate. The Times confidently asserted that Wang’s charges “brought down Mr. Bo and his wife, Gu Kailai.” Adding to the swirl of speculation is the idea that Gu and Heywood were lovers, as well as the bad taste Bo’s son (the “Prodigal Melon”) left in China’s mouth. While coverage has been ample, it has lacked coherence.
Fortunately, the National Bureau of Asian Research has posted this interview with Brookings’ Cheng Li, which should help put the whole affair into perspective. Li parses the issue in academic fashion, citing as factors in Bo’s downfall the interaction of factional infighting, Bo’s egotism and ambition, ideological issues, and Wang Lijun’s flight. In the Bo affair he sees some danger to the Party’s legitimacy, but assesses it overall as “a very positive event in China’s political development,” reasoning that it “not only reveals major flaws in the Chinese political system, but may also help the Chinese leadership, intellectual communities, and the general public reach a new consensus, thus contributing to bold and genuine political reforms.”
Where Li might be accused of Panglossian positivity, Claremont McKenna professor Minxin Pei is positively gloomy. In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, he concludes that “the current system favors those with powerful patrons, little talent, and no scruples.” According to Pei, “most observers at home and abroad felt the ambitious ‘princeling’ got what he deserved.” What Pei doesn’t explain is what made Bo deserving. Was this simply the result of criminal acts? Or was Bo’s real problem that he stepped on some toes while seeking to improve his standing during the Party’s leadership transition?
A 2010 book called The Fifth Generation puts it this way: “Those seeking ascent into Zhongnanhai [the seat of China’s leadership] must have achievements, and the “Smash Black” campaign is Bo Xilai’s shortcut.” But this came at a cost, “leaving many ill at ease” and “causing whispers.” Nicholas Kristof hints at this theory with his suggestion that Bo’s fall may be the result of his “flamboyance” and “Western-style politicking.” Thus it was not Bo’s deceits that were the cause of his ouster, but his conceits. The revelation of his crimes was merely the measure necessary to remove him. To be sure, the charges against Bo are plausible and should make him eligible for ouster, but this is beside the point, a “true pretense” so to speak. Bo’s fundamental crime was getting above himself. Naturally, “frying Bo’s squid” (炒薄同志的鱿鱼) on a pretense is rather deceitful, but at least Beijing is consistent: Deceit is no crime, but excessive ambition is. In this way we can see Bo as a modern-day incarnation of the literary figure Cao Cao, grasping at power that isn’t “rightfully” his.
Pei asks: “How was an individual with such known flaws entrusted with so much power with so little constraint?” Driven as he was by ambition, Bo’s actions probably pushed the limit. Speaking cynically, however, this may only have been a difference of degree, not of substance. TLN’s Rachel explores the idea of ubiquitous corruption as part of Chinese culture. In Bo’s case, both Li’s optimism and Pei’s pessimism suggest that the problem of corruption is not some sort of uniquely Chinese cultural feature, but a reality that China must control in order to advance. Even the vaunted designation “democracy” does not make a country immune from corruption. It is perhaps best to see corruption as a common human failing, only more obvious in developing societies.
One indicator of Bo’s failings may be the fate of Wang Lijun. If Bo’s crimes were truly the cause of his downfall and not merely its instrument, then Wang’s investigation of Bo ought to have made him the good guy. Why would he need asylum? Wang apparently saw no safety from Bo in the Party and therefore sought it with the U.S. His flight to the consulate was not only too spectacular for the Party to ignore, but was indeed just the thing to dislodge a troublesome but popular climber. Far from being a hero, it would appear that Wang fell into the same pit as his boss, suggesting not a cosmetic remodeling of the house of Bo, but its wholesale demolition.
Expert Joe Fewsmith is quoted as saying: “This has got to be shocking to the people of China… I think the party has lost a lot of credibility.” Of course, this calls to mind the fall of Lin Biao. I wonder if, beneath the drums and banners of the Cultural Revolution, there weren’t those who saw Lin as something of an opportunist in taking up Liu Shaoqi’s post as Mao’s number two. That Bo was stepping on toes and making enemies was apparent. His departure can’t be anything like as shocking as Lin’s was. For China, Bo Xilai was ultimately a sideshow. It will go on, with or without him.