April 25, 2012
The spectacular fall from grace of Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party chief in Chongqing, is the biggest political scandal to hit China in years. It centers around the suspected murder of British businessman Neil Heywood and the resultant investigation that names Bo Xilai’s wife, Gu Kailai, as a suspect.
Heywood was found dead in his hotel room in Chongqing, and the initial official reports (which have subsequently been challenged) attributed his death to alcohol poisoning. Media reports have suggested that the former chief of police under Bo, Wang Lijun, may have had information about Heywood's death. Wang fled to the US consulate in Chengdu on 6 February and allegedly told US diplomats that Heywood had been poisoned, and that Bo's family was involved in corruption.
Wang’s bizarre attempt at asylum – he was returned to Chinese authorities – has left many analysts scratching their heads: Was Wang a part of a Chinese Communist Party ruse to ruin Bo Xilai’s rapidly ascending career?
In the event, the Wang Lijun incident precipitated Bo's high profile sacking two weeks later. According to a reinvestigation by the Chinese authorities, evidence indicated that Heywood was murdered, with Gu Kailai, Bo Xilai's wife, "highly suspected," according to Xinhua News.
The truth behind Neil Heywood’s murder is one thing. The ramifications of the case are quite another, having not only triggered one of the biggest scandals to hit China's Communist Party in recent times, but also exposing deep political divisions behind the scenes.
Jayadeva Ranade has written an excellent piece (originally published in New Indian Express on April 17) that takes a closer look at this tawdry tale.
China’s Intense Inner Wars
By Jayadeva Ranade
The severe in-fighting for top posts at the highest echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) erupted into public glare in early February 2012, severely denting the Party’s image. The absence of veteran leaders of pre-eminence with adequate stature and unchallenged authority got accentuated. More significantly, the events provide a glimpse of the tense, vicious struggles underway and highlight the fragility of China’s power structure.
Bloodlines of candidates, patron-protégé linkages, mentor-mishu connections and rancorous relationships that had lain apparently dormant for decades, are all at play. The main issues are not ideology or pace of reform, but the ambition of the large numbers of cadres aspiring for the unusually numerous vacancies that are to become available at the 18th Party Congress this October. For some this Congress is the last chance for promotion before the age criteria, announced at the 17th Party Congress, compels them to retire at 67years.
Sixty-two-year old Bo Xilai, the first and possibly most prominent victim of this leadership struggle, was a candidate for the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), China’s highest and most powerful body. His credentials were solid. He came of “Red” lineage and was the son of Bo Yibo, one of so-called “Eight Immortals”. He had built an independent support base and had a track record of proven competence. He impressed foreigners — especially Americans — with his memory, grasp of the subject and fluency in English. In the Municipality of Chongqing he smashed underground triads and mafia, boosted economic growth to 16.4 per cent, reduced income disparities and eased the restrictive hukou system to allow for freer movement of rural folk to urban areas. Even China’s “liberal economists”, like Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s doctoral adviser Sun Liping, recently applauded Bo Xilai’s performance. Bo Xilai had additionally tapped in to the reservoir of pro-Mao sentiment to enhance his appeal. Conscious that he had missed elevation to the PBSC at the last congress by a very slender margin, this time Bo Xilai was leaving nothing to chance.
He had powerful supporters in the Party. They included China’s powerful security czar, Zhou Yongkang, PBSC member in charge of Propaganda, Li Changchun, and China’s former President Jiang Zemin. At least six of the nine PBSC members attended the lavish celebrations for the Party’s 90th founding anniversary organised by Bo Xilai in Chongqing. Clearly Bo Xilai was viewed as upward mobile and having a very good chance to enter the PBSC. Last year Vice President Xi Jinping had identified Bo Xilai as earmarked for higher rank.
Bo Xilai similarly had considerable influence within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The director of the PLA’s General Political Department (GPD), General Li Jinai, had attended the Party’s 90th founding anniversary celebrations in Chongqing. The political commissar of the Second Artillery Zhang Haiyang is a childhood friend. Bo Xilai had nurtured relations with the 14th Army, founded by his father, and assiduously cultivated relations with the Chengdu Military Region — deployed across India. When China’s President and chairman of the powerful Military Commission, Hu Jintao, was in Hawaii on November10, 2011, to attend the APEC Summit, Bo Xilai staged a large "defense mobilisation" military exercise in Chongqing where he invited defense minister Liang Guanglie and other southwestern Party and military leaders.
Though Bo Xilai built a wide support base, his brash style breached the low-key style that the Party approved and attracted adverse attention. His independent base was viewed as a potential alternate power centre, which could threaten the Party’s cohesion and unity. It was a source of serious discomfiture to Party general secretary and China’s President Hu Jintao and Vice President Xi Jinping. Bo Xilai had to be neutralised.
Moves to prevent Bo Xilai’s entry to the PBSC were carefully planned.The vice mayor in charge of public security, Wang Lijun, was manipulated to investigate Bo Xilai so that he could be embarrassed into giving up the race. But Wang Lijun strayed from the script and made an abortive attempt to defect to the US. This action sealed Wang Lijun’s fate and stunned the Party. China’s President Hu Jintao labeled Wang Lijun a “traitor”.
Despite the serious tussle underway in the Party’s top echelons on what punishment was to be meted out to Bo Xilai, there was unanimity that Party unity was paramount. The Party’s core united around the Party Centre and Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao received support to dismiss Bo Xilai from the Politburo (PB) and CC.
Xi Jinping wrote a lengthy article in the Party journal Seeking Truth on March 16, signalling that Hu Jintao had the upper hand. After weeks of protracted wrangling, proceedings were initiated on April 10, to dismiss Bo Xilai from the CC. The following day an editorial in the authoritative People’s Daily, warned that “China is a socialist country under the rule of law. The dignity of its laws and authority cannot be damaged.” It added “Regardless of an individual’s stature, anyone who breaks the law will be punished. There is no preferential treatment in the eyes of the law.” The Party’s message was blunt: no threat to the CCP’s cohesion, unity and primacy would be tolerated.
The Party now moved swiftly to contain damage and diminish Bo Xilai’s popularity by putting out a steady stream of stories about his and his wife’s corruption. Its Propaganda Department swung into action and curtailed the “Red” programmes started by Bo Xilai in February 2011, and neo-Maoist websites like Utopia and maoflag.com were shut for “maintenance”. The Party Centre also focussed on the PLA to uncover Bo Xilai’s links. A series of articles and editorials exhorted the PLA to unite “more closely around the Party centre with comrade Hu Jintao as General Secretary” of the Party and adhere to the principle of “absolute loyalty” to the Party. Controls on the Party’s and national security apparatus were simultaneously tightened.
A tussle is concurrently underway between Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping for installation of their respective supporters in the PBSC, PB and CC. Xi Jinping, however, has to tread cautiously as he cannot afford to be deprived of Hu Jintao’s crucial support.
The coming months will be sensitive and there is increased probability of Hu Jintao retaining the position of Military Commission chairman for another year. The CCP’s image has been dented and strict inner-Party discipline and stringent security precautions will be enforced, accompanied by a tougher posture on issues of sovereignty. Nonetheless, serious tensions exist within the Party making it increasingly difficult to rein in ambitions of senior Party cadres.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India.
Timeline for the Bo Xilai scandal
2 Feb: Chongqing city government announces that its popular police chief, Wang Lijun, has been shifted to another job. It is a demotion - and is the first public confirmation that the policeman has fallen out with Chongqing's Communist Party boss, Bo Xilai.
6 Feb: Mr Wang flees to the US consulate in Chengdu, near Chongqing. Many believe he went there to seek asylum. He spends the night at the consulate, which is surrounded by Chinese police.
7 Feb: The police chief is persuaded to leave the consulate after Chongqing's mayor rushes to the scene to talk to him. Mr Wang emerges into the waiting arms of the law and then disappears.
8 Feb: The Chongqing government says that because of over-work Mr Wang is suffering from stress and is now receiving "holiday-style medical treatment". In fact, he is under investigation and in detention.
5-14 Mar: Bo Xilai takes his seat at China's annual parliamentary session in Beijing. He keeps an unusually low profile amid rumours that Mr Wang's actions have tarnished his chances of promotion to the party's politburo Standing Committee later this year.
14 Mar: At a news conference, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao indirectly criticises Bo Xilai for his handling of the Wang Lijun incident. It is the first comment from a senior national leader on the issue, and shows Mr Bo is in a precarious position.
15 Mar: China announces that Bo Xilai has been removed from his post as party chief in Chongqing. Officials confirm that this is because of the Wang Lijun incident. He disappears from public view.
20 Mar: A leaked audio recording suggests Bo Xilai and his police chief fell out when Mr Wang told his boss of an investigation into Mr Bo's family. Another rumour suggests Mr Bo could be linked to the death of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, who died in Chongqing last November.
26 Mar: UK government confirms it has asked China to re-examine Neil Heywood's death.
10 Apr: China announces that Bo Xilai has been stripped of his Communist Party posts and that his wife, Gu Kailai, and an orderly are being investigated in connection with Mr Heywood's death.