Two Chinese intellectuals approached me in March at the Left Forum in New York City to ask, "What's going on with Bo Xilai?" I replied, "that's what I was going to ask you!" And while there has been a lot of talk in China and among China watchers about the sudden fall of this powerful figure in Chinese politics, the story has yet to be fully told. It's still a time for gathering and understanding the facts.
The story broke into the headlines when Bo ws removed from the Chongqing delegation to China's National People's Congress in March. Bo subsequently lost his other high political positions. Thus emerged the biggest Chinese political controversy in years.
Bo Xilai was head of the Chinese Communist Party in Chongqing, a huge industrial city in southwest China's Sichuan province. Bo won reknown for his "red songs" singing contests and reviving some other "left" practices; for the tough crackdown on municipal gangs and crime led by Chongqing's police chief Wang; and generous social policies such as low cost housing. This was known as the Chongqing model. Bo became in some eyes a symbol for China's New Left and for those advocating a return to a traditional socialism or some Mao-style policies.
Speculation was that the fast-rising and popular Bo would be appointed this Fall to the 9-person standing committee of the CCP's political bureau, China's most powerful committee. An unexpected turn came in February when police chief Wang pounded on the door of the US consulate in nearby Chengdu, asking for safe keeping. Wang allegedly carried documents implicating the Bo family in illegal financial activities and stories about strongarm tactics in the crackdown on crime. Bo's demotion came a month later along with a stern speech from Premier Wen Jiabao warning against reviving discredited practices.
Another turn to the story came when the British government requested investigation of the mysterious death of English businessman Neil Heywood, who died in Chongqing last November. Heywood's body was apparently quickly cremated without autopsy. Heywood was a close associate of Gu Kailai, Bo's wife, and helped their only son to gain admission to elite schools in England. The New York Times has published information about the supposed vast wealth and business dealings of the Bo family. Rumor was that Heywood refused to illegally transfer large sums of money from China to accounts overseas, and Gu had him poisoned to death. Chief Wang found evidence for this which led to his sudden dismissal.
The facts are unclear as the Communist Party in China to date has not released much information, and Bo is officially charged with violations of discipline without much detail. There are two types of explanations for Bo's sudden fall: 1) Bo was on the losing end of a high level Chinese political struggle, 2) Bo was involved in corruption and scandal. Perhaps the truth will be a combination of both. However, there are few facts to support speculation that Bo's fall marks a surge of power by rightwing, neoliberal forces pushing capitalism. The great recession of 2008 dealt a major political blow to those economists in China favoring expansion of private markets; subsequently there was a push to again emphasize central planning and the role of state-owned enterprises. The main body of Chinese political influence lies neither with the New Left or right Marxists, but the center/left position of General Secretary Hu Jintao. Personally, I see continuity in Chinese politics and policies rather than a major political shift.
China's 18th Party Congress in Fall 2012 and will witness a major turnover of top leadership as General Secretary Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and several other top leaders will reach their term limits and give their positions to younger comrades. In this situation, major political discussion and debates over China's policies and future direction are likely taking place within the CCP. All signs however point to a smooth leadership transition to the new general secretary, Xi Jinping,