China watchers have been digesting the news from last week that Bo Xilai, long considered one of the Communist party’s future stars, was dismissed from his post as party boss of Chonqing, colloquially known as “China’s Chicago,” a sprawling city of nearly 30 million in the southwest of the country. Bo had become symbolic of an old-fashioned, hard-line approach to administration and reform, openly spouting Mao-era songs and slogans. Some in the Western media labeled him a populist, but publicly, this manifested itself in attempts to rally support for tighter government control. The proximate reason for Bo’s dismissal was the apparent attempt by one of his close allies, the vice mayor of Chongqing, to seek asylum in the United States; when this attempt was rebuffed by an American consulate to which he had fled, the official, Wang Lijun, was arrested by Chinese police. In the wake of this incident, China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, began indirectly criticizing Xilai, and from then, the writing was on the wall. This may seem like a bit of inside baseball to those who aren’t steeped in Chinese politics, but the episode is significant, and a rare opportunity to peer behind the veil of the Communist party’s internal workings.
The dismissal of such a senior and well-connected official would be news enough in a regular year. As a son of one of the founders of the People’s Republic, Bo was a charter member of the group known as the “princelings,” whose rise to the heights of power seemed preordained. But this is the year of China’s leadership transition, and Bo, a former Minister of Commerce, was widely expected to be elevated to the Communist party’s Standing Committee — which essentially runs China — later this year. Bo’s fellow princeling Xi Jinping is also in the final months of his assumed ascension to leadership of the Communist party and presidency of China. The spotlight was on Xi earlier this year when he traveled to Washington, D.C., for his inaugural meeting with the Obama administration. As the leadership transition draws near, analysts and pundits have been looking for signs of dissension within the ruling circle, partly as a way to assess the resilience of a regime that is soon to give the reins of power to its fifth generation.
The public sacking of Bo clearly reveals that such fissures do exist. Granted, the party seems to handle these things better than it did in the old days, when Mao’s heir apparent, Lin Biao, after an apparent coup attempt, died in a mysterious mid-air explosion while trying to flee to Mongolia or Russia. But Bo’s dismissal cuts to the core of both personality politics and competing visions among China’s leaders. At the center of the divergence is the interlinked question of economic liberalization and political openness. China has successfully pursued the former while strictly controlling the latter since the Tiananmen uprising in 1989. Yet two parallel pressures are impinging on the government’s leadership and their efforts to control this dynamic: The first is the rollback in economic liberalization and the corresponding increase in the role of the state-owned sector in China; the second is the continued demand for more political space for China’s citizens, spurred by social media and some of the more abject failings of the party and government (such as the response to last year’s high-speed-rail accident).
Western media like to highlight the difference between Bo’s Mao-inspired approach in Chongqing with that of Wang Yang, party chief of the vibrant southern province of Guangdong. Wang pursued economic liberalization in Guangdong, while Bo favored state-owned enterprises. While Bo whipped up the masses with Mao-era songs, Wang took a decidedly low-key response to protests in the small village of Wukan last year. The “Guangdong model” has made Wang a favorite among those who believe that China can continue to evolve toward a more liberal model of governance. As proof of its effectiveness, they point to the fact that Wang, too, is expected to be made a member of the all-powerful Standing Committee this autumn.