By Narayani Basu
The sensational ousting of Chongqing’s municipality chief, Bo Xilai, in March 2012, has not only blighted what was a particularly colourful political career, but has also exposed the bitter battle between the reformers and hardliners within the Communist Party of China (CPC). In the 60 years that it has held power, the CPC has prided itself on keeping its policy decisions and intra-party machinations out of international headlines. The sacking of Xilai, therefore, is a political crisis, unseen in China since the 1980s.
After studying history in Peking University, Xilai rose to become the Chief of Chongqing and bagged key posts in CPC’s Central Committee and the Politburo. His stern stance on crime earned him the tag of a political firecracker, and widespread popular support. But it was his methodology that earned him flak among the higher echelons of the CPC. It was widely believed within party ranks that Xilai, along with Vice Mayor Wang Lijun, his long time police chief and partner in his anti-crime campaign, were misusing the justice system in order to achieve their goals of cracking down on crime. When Wang Lijun decided, in March 2012, to seek asylum in the American consulate in Chengdu, matters spiralled out of control. His flight to the US embassy was no ‘isolated incident’ as was originally reported. Tensions between Xilai and his police chief had been rising for months. However, relations between the two reached the point of no return only when Wang Lijun confronted Xilai over a criminal investigation, which had potentially damning consequences both for Xilai and his wife, Gu Kailai. Xilai was removed from his post the next day after Premier Wen Jiabao suggested that he was culpable not only for Wang’s flight, but also for fuelling false nostalgia for the bygone years of Mao Tse-Tung.
This was a revealing statement, for it clearly highlighted the split in the CPC ranks. It is an open secret that the CPC has been split between those who believe that the party should adapt to the times, and the hardliners, who see any such change as an open admission of weakness and a subsequent threat to the party’s grip on power.
Over the past year, Xilai had begun to emerge as the spearhead of the hardliners with his attempts to cultivate a modern personality cult, complete with sophisticated lifestyle and regular and savvy media contacts, and his revival of the songs and slogans of the Maoist era. Nevertheless, this may have only been a secondary cause in his sacking. This is simply because of the way Chongqing was run under him – in fact, the ‘Chongging Model’ was endorsed by some of the top brass of the CPC, who visited his city, which boosted Xilai’s value in the political market. However, a closer look at his political steps shows that in his climb to power, Xilai broke several taboos. For instance, it is safe to assume from the trajectory of the political history of the party alone that his undoubted jostling for the topmost rung of power alarmed and alienated his comrades. His ambition and style struck a chord of remembrance among those who have not forgotten the nature of politics during Mao’s reign. Thus, Xilai had to be stopped.
What is next for the Communist Party? Naturally, an entirely new shortlist of candidates for the Politburo Standing Committee must be drawn up. But the episode of Xilai’s ouster has profoundly damaged the party’s serene image. The Tiananmen crackdown of 1989 taught the party that infighting not only strengthened the pro-democracy undercurrents in the country, but also paralyzed the party’s ability to make decisions. Since then, therefore, it has worked hard to maintain an external façade of unity within the top echelons of power. The Bo Xilai incident has shown rifts that are deep and potentially damaging. There are the elitists (like Wu Bangguo), the second and fourth-ranked members of the Politburo, and the ‘princelings’ (like Xi Jinping), the children of former Communist heroes rising to power themselves. They generally represent the interests of China’s flourishing coastal areas. Then there are the populists, technocrats like Hu Jintao and advocates for China’s workers like Li Keqiang. Some of China’s top leaders are liberals, most famously Wen Jiabao, who believe that China should continue along the path to reform.
Political rifts within the party are being echoed among the broader masses of the people, despite the party’s best attempts to censor subversive material. While some are decrying Xilai’s departure, others continue to call for reform.
Within Beijing matters are, presently, in limbo – whether it is the Communist Party, or Bo Xilai himself. For now, it would appear that while the reformist faction within the party may have a slight edge over the other factions, it is necessary to find a politically viable narrative to fully explain the downfall of a popular leader.
Research Scholar, DEAS, DU
email: [email protected]