Bo Xilai and the Left in China: Anatomy of a Scandal
Anatomy of a scandal
Sunday 06 May 2012
by Ben Parankulangara MORNING STAR
Twenty-twelve is proving a difficult year for the Chinese government. In some senses this was to be expected - the party general secretary Hu Jintao is due to retire (though he will not step down as president until next year), as is Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, and shifts in leadership are always accompanied by political wrangling.
The 80-million-strong Communist Party is not a monolith and there are significant differences of opinion on the course of the country's development, which is not of itself a bad thing.
But the furore over the highly mysterious Bo Xilai incident is a scandal which has attracted an unusual level of international attention and has fuelled intense speculation, both in the Western media and on Chinese social media sites, both as to what exactly happened - many details are still unknown - and why.
Since the rumour mill has gone into overdrive many observers may feel they know more about this political scandal than is justified by the facts.
The unravelling of former Chongqing party leader Bo's career began on February 6, when the city's police chief Wang Lijun presented himself at the US consulate in nearby Chengdu.
Since then various tales of what Wang told the US have abounded - that Bo had put his life in danger, that Bo was involved in the death of British businessman Neil Heywood, which had previously been ascribed to alcohol poisoning, that Wang had sought political asylum.
Actually we know nothing of what transpired. The US says that Wang had an appointment at the consulate and left voluntarily the next day.
This clearly isn't the whole story - a Chinese police official might well have an appointment at a US consulate, but would hardly stay the night under ordinary circumstances - but nothing else has been confirmed.
In March, however, following a speech in which the prime minister told the party in Chongqing to "learn from the Wang Lijun incident," Bo lost his position as the city's party leader.
On April 10 he was suspended from the central committee and the politburo for "serious disciplinary violations" to be investigated, and his wife Gu Kailai has been formally charged with Heywood's murder in a case which has again prompted endless speculation.
Bo Xilai was a prominent figurehead of China's "new left," and his downfall caused an explosion of critical commentary on left-wing websites in the country, many of which accused the government of concocting the whole affair for political reasons. This does not stand up to scrutiny.
If the Chinese leadership wanted to disgrace a political rival, they would hardly do so in a way which provoked an international scandal and damages relations with a foreign power.
So can we just dismiss the political aspect and treat this as an ordinary criminal case, albeit with an unusually high-profile suspect?
As far as Bo personally is concerned, yes. But the political significance lies in its sensitive timing - a leadership transition year - and in Bo's status as the most high-profile "new left" figure in China.
The case may not be politically motivated, but figures who opposed Bo's style of politics are certainly attempting to use it to discredit the new left in general.
So what is the new left? The term encompasses quite a wide range of views, from full-on Maoism which rejects the country's entire path of development since 1978 to a more nuanced position which sees a major role for the state in regulating the economy and redistributing wealth.
Ironically this broader definition has seen Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao described as part of the movement in the past, since their policies have concentrated on developing China's poorest regions, strengthening employment law, giving more independence to trade unions and massively investing in "green" technology.
But it also includes out-and-out dissidents, such as the four activists arrested in Zhengzhou in 2004 after running a leaflet campaign under the slogan Mao Forever Our Leader which denounced the government as imperialist.
This form of anti-government activism rarely receives much attention in the West but resonates more in China than its "liberal" counterpart, which barely registers.
Bo Xilai's tenure as Chongqing party secretary was characterised by a more aggressive and populist approach than that of Hu and Wen, but could hardly be said to be in opposition to the line taken by central government.
His injunction to party leaders to "eat the same, live the same" as ordinary people was far better illustrated by the lifestyle of the modest Wen than it was by his own behaviour, if we take into account that he sent his son to school at Harrow in England.
His habit of sending out "red text messages," usually quotes from Mao, has been described rather hysterically as harking back to the Cultural Revolution, but then Hu began his term in office back in 2003 by delivering the most favourable speech on Mao from a party leader in decades on the 110th anniversary of the former chairman's birth and Mao's stature and popularity have seldom been higher in China than they are at the moment - since his death, that is.
Granting residency status to migrant workers, and thus allowing them access to all the social security and welfare benefits that that brings, is again part of a wider national trend, not some sort of rebellious Chongqing experiment.
His rigorous defence of state-owned industries and intervention to save small businesses from bankruptcy in the wake of the 2008 economic crash was actually closer to the Beijing line than the approach of his rival Wang Yang - Chongqing party leader before Bo, and now party secretary of Guangdong province - who remarked that "unproductive" businesses would be "eliminated by the market" and dragged his feet over preventing factory closures despite public pressure from Wen to do so.
So will the end of Bo career - it's always unwise to make predictions in Chinese politics, but it's hard to see how he could weather this scandal - mean the end of the much-admired Chongqing model? Will the party lurch to the right?
That powerful figures, including Wang Yang, would like this is undeniable. Wang has been openly contemptuous of Bo's egalitarian policies and has argued, neoliberal-style, that redistribution hampers economic growth under the slogan "bake the cake, don't cut it up."
That the reform and opening-up policy followed by the Communist Party since the 1980s has allowed the emergence of a capitalist class in China is indisputable, though unlike in the West it is not the ruling class.
But where capitalist economic relations exist there is class struggle - and the capitalists have in some ways strengthened their hand under Hu and Wen, for example when the party announced in 2005 that a long-standing ban on property owners joining it would be dropped.
While most observers have seen Hu and Wen's emphasis on social justice and strengthening of labour laws as part of a shift to the left in Chinese politics, it is also possible to see them as rearguard actions by a socialist leadership in the face of an increasingly powerful and confident capitalist class eager to lock horns with its US counterpart and supplant it as the arbiter of the world economic system.
And that prominent economic liberals have stepped up their lobbying for right-wing projects, such as rail privatisation, since Bo's downfall is undeniable, although opinion columns in state media suggest that the party leadership remains hostile to such moves.
Ultimately the Chongqing model has been portrayed as more unique than it really was.
In fact there are a number of economic "models" at work in China, as provinces have significant autonomy over how to spend their half of the tax intake - the other half goes to central government.
Chongqing is one of several regional administrations that have taken a more left-wing approach, as Guangdong is one of several that incline to the right.
The economic debate on China's future isn't over. The left has been embarrassed by the Bo Xilai scandal. That doesn't mean it has lost the argument.