HONG KONG – The larger-than-life geopolitical-economic question of our time, arguably, is not Syria, Iran, or even NSA spying. It’s all about China; how on Earth the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will be successful in tweaking Beijing’s economic growth model, and how China will manage its now slowed-down ascension.
But first there’s no less than a “trial of the century” to get rid of.
Disgraced former Politburo superstar Bo Xilai – of the “Chongqing model” fame – was finally indicted this week, accused of relatively minor charges of accepting bribes of US$3.2 million and embezzling roughly $800,000.
The fascinating screenplay opens with how Chinese media reacted to it. Three minutes before Xinhua announced it, the People’s Daily was already meticulously drawing a distinction between “Bo Xilai’s personal issues” and “the successes in the economic and social development” of Chongqing.
Fifteen minutes later, Xinhua followed with a commentary essentially warning that Bo had fallen because a local “tiger” had become too powerful; and thus “the nation’s long-term stability can only be secured by protecting the authority of the central leadership”.
Also 15 minutes after, the Global Times sealed the deal, stressing that corrupt Party bigwigs like Bo were “a cancer” and should be dealt with by the letter of the law.
The problem is all this heavy artillery does not even begin to tell the story.
The Ferrari vs the Hondas
Tall, energetic, charismatic, a fluent English speaker (learned when he was still in junior high, before the Cultural Revolution) and a princeling to boot – the prodigal son of Bo Yibo, one of the “Eight Immortals”, the group of Mao Zedong’s close pals led by Deng Xiaoping, who later opened China to the world – Bo Xilai is the stuff “rise and fall” epics are made of.
A princeling – as defined by the Hong Kong-based media way back in the 1980s – was one of the hundreds of children of CCP leaders who danced to the mojo of unlimited money, power and privilege. Bo – who inherited all the priceless guanxi woven by his illustrious father – preferred the term “red successor”.
It’s absolutely impossible to understand what’s happening to Bo without following his complex family interactions with current Chinese President Xi Jinping, former president Hu Jintao and former premier Wen Jiabao. It’s like comparing a Ferrari with a trio of Honda Civics.
Bo, the maverick, dashing Ferrari, is communist aristocracy by birth. Hu and Wen are hard workers who came from practically nothing. Wen’s family, in Tianjin, was persecuted by the princeling Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. But later, in 1966, it was the poor Red Guards from his university who ended up arresting Bo’s father.
Hu Jintao’s father was a tea merchant. He was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution – and never “rehabilitated”. Later, during the 1980s, Bo’s father, duly rehabilitated, went all out against Hu Yaobang – who happened to be the mentor of both Hu and Wen.
The key point is that bad blood between these families was the name of the game for at least one generation.
By the end of 2007, Bo had lost his internal fight at the 17th Party Congress to become a vice-premier. He got into the Politburo – but was “exiled” to Chongqing, in Sichuan – some 1,500 kilometers away from Beijing. Chongqing has been a provincial-level municipality since 1997. The sprawling city has a population of 7 million, but the wider metropolis in the Yangtze valley holds no fewer than 33 million – and counting. Chongqing was one of the nodes of the late 1990s’ “Go West” policy – the push to industrialize the Chinese hinterland at breakneck speed.
Bo arrived in Chongqing ready to roll. 2008 was the crucial year when the CCP unveiled a new narrative of a confident China finally overcoming “a century of humiliation” under foreign colonial powers. Beijing’s answer to the Wall Street-provoked financial crisis was a nearly $600 billion stimulus package – the largest in history – to turbo-charge the Chinese economy. But after that yet another narrative was needed to justify the CCP’s power monopoly.
Bo smelled a winner. He capitalized on a widespread popular sense of alienation, resentment against inequality, and nostalgia for those egalitarian early days of socialism. Simultaneously he capitalized on Hu and Wen’s campaign to fight inequality, as well as their ambivalence towards the role of private capital, and turned left, big time.
His masterful channeling of public resentment led to a reawakening of “the masses”; Bo was talking again about the bogeyman – the bourgeoisie – complete with nostalgic production values of the revolutionary era (as in Mao songs and quotations, which he knew by heart because he had spent five years in prison during the Cultural Revolution).
That was the “Sing Red” campaign. Couple that with sending 200,000 officials “down to the countryside”, Mao-style, to “learn from the people” and a so-called “Red GDP” economic program – as in socialist equality, an orgy of affordable housing, sleek new highways, seducing global corporations (Hewlett-Packard, Foxconn, Samsung, Ford) to be based in Chongqing, and we had the municipality’s annual GDP growing at an astonishing 16%.
The problem is that much of that was financed by loans from other parts of China. In four years, Chongqing’s banking debts ballooned. Yet impressed on the masses was the idea of a mobilization of China for a higher purpose – even as Bo followed the official mantra of “harmonious society” preached by Hu and Wen. The difference was these were real facts on the ground – not just rhetoric.
The tiger is trapped
By then, The Fall loomed. The day would come when Wen’s vague calls for “democracy” and the rule of law would collide with Bo’s neo-Maoism. In 2010 and 2011 it was practically war in the Politburo between Wen and Bo. And here another subplot is crucial.
Bo was very close to former president Jiang Zemin. And Jiang was always very protective of Bo. Jiang was supporting every Bo move against Wen – including his push for China’s top security position, which happened to be occupied by another Jiang protege, Zhou Yongkang, who would be retiring from the Politburo Standing Committee at the 18th Party Congress.
So far, Xi Jinping – another “red successor” and placed to succeed Hu Jintao as president – was at least in theory supporting Bo, both of them faithful to Jiang Zemin. Bo would always be a Ferrari compared to Xi’s Honda Civic. After all, Bo’s father, for no less than seven decades, had always been one step ahead and above Xi’s father. And when directly compared, Bo was – hands down – smarter, bolder and infinitely more charismatic than Xi. The unspoken wisdom in Beijing was that Xi would never be able to keep Bo under control if they were both in action in the rarified Politburo Standing Committee.
All tensions came to a head in March 2012, at the National People’s Congress. It started with Wen referring to “the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution and feudalism” that still remained, just to depict Bo as a man of the past, who wanted to block the necessary reform of China’s economy, its opening to the world, and its full modernization. Wen implied that Bo had to go so the Maoist past would be finally buried. With Bo, said Wen, “a historical tragedy like the Cultural Revolution may happen again”. The (posthumous) winner would have to be Hu Yaobang – not by accident Wen’s mentor and a very close friend to Xi’s father.
That was major hardball. The next day Bo was unceremoniously fired from his position of Party boss of Chongqing. And if that was not enough, murder had to creep into the screenplay – part of a cascade of sleaze which has been in full flow since Bo’s police chief Wang Lijun had defected to the US consulate in Chengdu earlier in the year.
Bo’s lawyer wife Gu Kailai became the central character in the plot of a small-time but dashing English man of mystery (Neil Heywood) poisoned by the wife of a Politburo heavy. All hell broke loose. Soon it was public knowledge that Bo had tapped Hu Jintao’s phone; that Gu Kilai’s siblings had assets of nearly $130 million; that future president Xi Jinping’s siblings had family assets of over $1 billion; and that “democracy” crusader Wen’s family assets were at over $2.7 billion. The Politburo as a larger than life kleptocracy was fully exposed.
Bo was suspended from the Politburo and the Central Committee for “serious” violations of Party “discipline”. Everybody stopped talking about the “Chinese model”. Bo spent months in the custody of the sinister Central Commission for Discipline Inspection – which translates as being incommunicado and under hardcore interrogation (that would not break someone who withstood five years in jail during the Culture Revolution). Meanwhile, the CCP leadership was debating what to do about him.
Now we know. What we still don’t know is what sort of trial of the century it will be. China’s “trial of the 20th century” – starring the Gang of Four – was on TV. Imagine Bo’s on 24/7 saturation coverage on all imaginable formats. Not likely; probably it will be something meticulously choreographed – and speedy – as in Gu Kailai’s trial, although the script would be a writers’ dream if Bo would take no prisoners, deviate from the micro-managed CCP-imposed script, and really spill the beans.
It seems that in the upcoming Beidaihe summer retreat the CCP heavyweights will finally decide Bo’s fate. This whole fascinating saga can be seen as a deadly, scorpions in a cage, internal Politburo war with a definite winner – Xi; two relative winners – Hu and Wen; and a definite loser – Bo. It gets curioser and curioser when Jiang Zemin himself imperially breaks his silence, as he did this week, and hands out his verdict, last-word style – announcing his public support for Xi.
And so the fractious Politburo, after a hasty trial, may finally become “harmonious” again – and ready to tackle the earth-shattering question of tweaking the Chinese model.
But the specter of Bo will not go away. He did turn Chinese politics upside down, while revealing a lot about its extremely shady practices. What’s not to like? As no Chinese filmmaker would be allowed to touch such sensitive material, Hollywood might be tempted to have a go – with Chow Yun-Fat playing Bo. Fallen Tiger, Cruel Dragon, anyone?