Published: August 14, 2013
Bo Xilai was mayor of China’s north-eastern city Dalian when I first met him in the early 1990s, and I remember thinking he was the first senior Communist Party official I had encountered who could win a western-style free and fair election.
But Bo’s populist talents flipped into a lethal liability after 2007 when he became a national and international political celebrity as the party’s leader in the western megalopolis of Chongqing.
As leader of the city of 32 million people his vigorous anti-corruption campaigns, his neo-Maoist model of state-sponsored development, and even his appeal to the nostalgia of the middle-aged by staging concerts of music and songs from the heyday of communism won popular adulation.
Almost all the leaders from Beijing flew in to admire the “Chongqing model.”
But then the penny dropped.
Bo had become a political force almost beyond the control of the party. This could not be allowed to continue, and his apparently unstoppable rise to power and leadership came to an abrupt end in March last year when he was sacked and expelled from the party.
He has been in detention since then, and there are persistent reports from China that he will very soon be put on trial for corruption, bribery and abuse of power.
This pending courtroom drama is being widely billed as the Chinese Communist Party’s most important show trial since the prosecution of the Gang of Four, overseers of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution after the death of their mentor, Mao Zedong, in 1976.
There can be little doubt that orchestration of this event is going to be a very delicate matter.
Bo must be branded and convicted as a common criminal without undermining the legitimacy in power of the Communist Party, or heating to a dangerous level the already simmering public belief that all their leaders are deeply corrupt and should be in the same dock as Bo.
The set-piece trial must also be played out without giving the public any sight of the evident fissures within the party.
Bo’s fall has undoubtedly goaded factional and ideological divides in the party leadership.
Evidence of this is the months of backroom bargaining that have gone into agreeing on the charges that are being brought against Bo.
Bo has significant support among conservative left-wingers in the party and in the military who abhor China’s departure from classic socialism and the ideological sterility of authoritarian capitalism.
The charges being brought against him are the minimal imaginable and immeasurably less serious than those foreseen in state-controlled media after he was detained.
Last September the state-controlled news agency Xinhua reported allegations of Bo’s involvement in murder, spying on other party leaders, the use of torture and other extra-legal methods against political targets in Chongqing, asset-stripping, money laundering, flagrant womanising, something called “celebrity prostitution,” and even attempting to seize power.
All those allegations have dropped off the charge sheet as the agenda has come to be dominated by the need to maintain the illusion of party unity and the right to rule.
Since the decades of the monstrous leadership of Mao, the Communist Party has sought to foster the illusion that it has perfected a system of co-operative, consensus-driven leadership based on the appointment to power of the most skilled and experienced people.
Leaders are selected, says the myth, for their passion for public service, and none is driven by the desire for power or prestige.
This, says the party’s carefully fashioned trompe-l’oeil, negates the need for reform and the adoption of a system more representative of, or accountable to, the public.
The truth, of course, is that China is a meritocracy in name only. The leadership is riven by as many political and family factions as any institution of authority anywhere.
Indeed, the tensions may be even more acute in the Chinese Communist Party because the price of failure is so high.
Bo’s fate after his show trial – probably life in prison – is the inevitable outcome for those who lose a political struggle in China. There are numerous examples.
The party leaders, like everyone else in China, know full well that all of them have committed the same sins as Bo. Some diligent journalism has found a clear paper trail showing the family fortune of current President and Communist Party leader Xi is at least $200 million, while that of former Premier Wen Jiabao reaches into the billions.
Bo’s dramatic fall from grace and power came almost by accident.
It is an interesting speculation how Bo’s story might have played out had not his long-time right-hand-man and Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to a United States consulate in February last year.
Wang sought political asylum and was full to bursting with stories of murder, abuses of rights, corruption and extortion in the Bo family.
Wang feared, apparently with justice, that Bo intended to silence him. American diplomats, wisely, decided not to step into the minefield of this domestic Chinese political violent squabble. Wang was persuaded to put himself in the hands of Beijing’s national security authorities.
As a result, Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, was tried and sentenced to life in prison last year for the murder of a British business associate, Neil Heywood. Wang was imprisoned for aiding attempts to cover up the murder. Jonathan.firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe