Who is Bo Xilai and What Does He Say About the Future of China?


The unfolding drama of Bo Xilai took a new and sensational twist yesterday when he was ousted from the upper echelons of Chinese Communist Party membership. In addition, his wife has been arrested under suspicion for the murder of a British national.

On the heels of his dismissal in March as political head of Chongqing, Bo has been suspended for ambiguous “violations of party discipline” from the CCP Central Committee and the Central Committee Political Bureau, two of the highest political bodies in China.

Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, is a suspect in the murder of Neil Heywood, a 41 year-old British businessman. Heywood had ties to Bo's family dating back to the 1990’s, when he served as mayor of Dalian. Last November, Heywood was found dead in a Chongqing hotel room, reportedly from a heart attack brought on by high levels of alcohol consumption. He was quickly cremated without an autopsy. Gu has been taken into custody by Chinese officials, but the details surrounding her involvement in Heywood’s death remain unspecified.

The chain of events that has led to Bo’s suspension from the CCP’s Politburo and Central Committee are only slightly clearer. Bo had gained renown as the populist crime-fighting boss of western China’s mega-city Chongqing with Wang Lijun as one of his trusted aides and police chief. Under Bo’s reign in Chongqing, a murky blend of populism and authoritarianism, the city saw impressive economic growth marked by increased foreign investment and a dramatic 16.6 percent rise in GDP.

Yet for all his populist pandering and socialist nostalgia, Bo's political career began to unravel when Wang visited the U.S. consulate general in Chengdu last February and allegedly sought asylum. Bo and Wang’s falling out reportedly stemmed from Bo’s interference in a police investigation into the affairs of the Bo clan that has been developing over the last few weeks. As the drama played out and the Chinese public became more curious, the central government resorted to widespread internet censorship in an attempt to quash myriad rumors surrounding the matter.

The Bo affair is one of the most intriguing political scandals to strike China in decades and the implications are far-reaching. The transitioning Chinese leadership faces a cornucopia of issues, includingcronyism, corruption, rule of law, political infighting, and reform. These concerns must be addressed if the People’s Republic of China hopes to remain stable as it creates an increasingly expanding economic and geopolitical footprint.

One facet of Bo's case is the cronyism implicit among the “princeling” class of China. Princelings are the category of politicians and businessmen in China who have gained their positions of prominence through family ties and historical legacies.

The Bo family has such a pedigree. Bo’s father was Bo Yibo, a revolutionary party hero while his wife Gu Kailai is the daughter of General Gu Jingsheng, another well-known revolutionary from the early days of the Communist party. This lineage, along with Bo's populist rhetoric, has given his family a perverted form of Communist credentials, and as this drama unfolds, the nastier aspects of the princeling class – the nepotism, cronyism and corruption – become more visible.

Such is the case with Bo’s son, Bo Guagua. The younger Bo has become a poster child for the excess and privilege shown to the princelings. He went abroad to a British private school, currently attends Harvard University, and he is often mentioned in the media regarding his proclivity for Ferrari automobiles. In a country of extreme income inequality, this affluence is a reminder of the all-too-prevalent corruption that plagues the country.

Another aspect of Bo's situation, one the CCP would prefer to ignore, is the far reaching degree of corruption in government. He rose through the party ranks in large part for his efforts in cleaning up crime. His crime-fighting in Chongqing was deemed a great success until the more disturbing details of his hard striking campaign came out. Along with subduing crime, the police under Bo were accused of routinely torturing prisoners and subverting the rule of law. It is a bitter irony that his chief of police may have felt that there was no option but to seek asylum, that Bo's superiors were either too far out of reach or entirely complicit in his sordid affairs. In the unraveling of Bo's career, one built largely on fighting organized crime, it may come to pass that he was the biggest gangster around. 

In the opaque world of Chinese politics, Bo also offers a glimpse of the tenuous balance between hardliners and reformers. While the case has been touted by Chinese state media as a shining example of how the rule of law prevails, the entire series of events surrounding Bo is largely the result of a failure of the rule of law and inner-party factionalism. These events seem to be something akin to an ‘October Surprise’ in the U.S. and may be a concerted effort by the reigning forces within the CCP, through state media, to use the Bo case as a device to unify public opinion behind the ascendant Xi Jinping bloc of leadership. The Xi faction of the CCP is expected to retain the Hu-Wen path toward moderate financial and political reform and the CCP, through Xinhua news service, has highlighted the party’s attempts to remedy Bo's more radical brand of personal politics.

While Bo's style of helmsmanship of Chongqing has been painted as an ultimate authority and reactionary leftist longing for the days of Mao Zedong’s socialist utopia, this ignores the nuance of the brand of personal politics that he followed. Bo's leadership was marked by a powerful personality who used his own charisma as much as he did memories of Mao’s. This reason, as much as any wrongdoing, was the cause of his fall from grace.

Soon to depart Premier Wen Jiabao was far from smitten with Bo and his style of politics. Wen Jiabao, in speeches and interviews, has laid the groundwork for future political and social reform in China, one that does not follow Bo's Chongqing model. The upcoming generation of leadership would be wise to heed Wen’s call and substantively address the political dissatisfaction that is widespread among large swathes of the Chinese population. The Bo case exemplifies this disconnect between the Communist party and the people by showing how political decision making, as Bo practiced, is the exclusive domain of the party and not the people.

The corruption, cronyism, and factionalism endemic in the People’s Republic may not be disappearing anytime soon, but for all the talk of political reform and rule of law, the downfall of Bo may well have an upside for China. As Bo exits the stage, there is an opening for a younger figure to fill the void, which could likely be Wang Yang, the party boss in Guangdong. Wang, who has a reputation as a reform-minded moderate, can be seen as the antidote for Bo's brand of personal politics, and can do well to fill the political transformation role called for by Wen.

Through Xinhua, the CCP has stated that it “stands for people, accepts their supervision, never compromises on corruption.” The Bo case is an opportunity for the party to start doing so by shedding a past plagued by disregard for the rule of law and detachment from the common people. If not, it may transpire that the Chinese Communist Party‘s future may mirror that of the Bo family’s saga.