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The Bo Xilai Crisis: Confidence Gained or Risk Increased?

An Interview with Cheng Li

By Jonathan Walton
October 4, 2012


Last Friday, official news sources announced that former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai was expelled from the Chinese Community Party (CCP) and will face criminal charges due to a decision made by the Politburo, one of the CCP's highest decision-making bodies. Bo's expulsion follows the convictions of his former lieutenant Wang Lijun, sentenced the previous Monday, and his wife Gu Kailai, who was found guilty in late August of plotting the murder of Neil Heywood, a British business associate of the Bo family.

NBR spoke once again with Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese elite politics and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, about the significance of these recent developments. This expert interview is a continuation of a previous Q&A with Dr. Li conducted last April, when Bo was first stripped of his posts.


What is your reaction to the decision to have a criminal trial for Bo Xilai?

I applaud the Chinese leadership for deciding to go through the legal process, with all its potential difficulties and embarrassments, and all the challenges and risks involved in putting Bo Xilai on trial. Although some people are cynical and still think that this is nothing but factional politics, at least in the wake of the crisis, the top leaders reached an agreement to go through the legal process and have criminal charges filed against him. To publicly reveal some of the criminal conduct of this charismatic and demagogic CCP leader is a sign of commitment, not a sign of fear. It's a testament to unity among the leadership, not an evidence of a split. Most importantly, it could potentially be an important step toward gaining public confidence about political reforms and the rule of law.

Previously, some people suggested that Bo would be handled in a way similar to former CCP general secretary Zhao Ziyang, through the party's disciplinary system but not through legal or criminal charges. Now we know that this is not the case and that the legal process has already started. I have always argued that while Zhao and Bo are both heavyweight politicians, they are quite different in terms of their wrongdoing. Zhao's offenses were that he could not effectively control the Tiananmen protests and also released some secret information to foreigners. He was never charged with corruption and certainly not implicated in a murder committed by a family member or other terrible abuses of power. But Bo is charged with all these things: attempting to cover up the crime or interfere with the investigation, and also abuse of power and corruption. The most important thing is that, if the leadership handles Bo's scandal the same way as in Zhao's case, it's really an insult to China's judicial system and legal development over the past two decades.

Premier Wen Jiabao actually said, even before Bo was dismissed as party chief of Chongqing, that the leadership should use the legal process to deal with the Wang Lijun case. That's a positive development. China's legal profession, which was very weak during the 1989 Tiananmen protests, has now become an important interest group in Chinese society. Two hundred thousand registered lawyers now have a voice and many of them are calling for rule of law and constitutionalism, a call that has grown louder in the wake of the Bo Xilai crisis.

On the other hand, it would be intellectually and political naïve to believe that the crisis can bring only positive developments for the country. Chinese leaders' promise, driven primarily by the ongoing legitimacy crisis, to transform CCP rule into a more accountable and less corrupt political system will by no means be easy to achieve. Any missteps in Bo's trial could result in strong public reactions.

Some of the charges against Bo are seen as inadequate or ironic in the eyes of the Chinese public, thus undermining the integrity of the trial. For example, Chinese critics have already expressed their cynicism about the officially alleged amount of Bo's corruption (20 million yuan) because this amount was significantly lower than what Bo, as widely reported in social media, gave to one of his mistresses! Additionally, one of the official charges against Bo is that "he made erroneous decisions in the promotion of personnel, resulting in serious consequences." Many Chinese netizens have found this charge particularly ironic because those leaders who promoted Bo should also be held accountable for their even greater "erroneous decisions."

Not surprising, many leaders and their advisers are concerned that the trial of Bo may turn into the trial of the CCP monopoly on power, which made Bo's decade-long abuse of authority possible in the first place. At a time when China is experiencing economic slowdown, increasing unemployment, large-scale social dislocation, relatively weak and indecisive leadership, and daunting challenges in foreign relations, the upcoming trial could be used by various forces as a lightning rod for ideological debates, policy disputes, and sociopolitical unrest.


You correctly predicted the jail terms for Gu Kailai and Wang Lijun in your interview with NBR in April. What does this latest announcement tell us about the severity of the official charges against Bo Xilai and how is his trial likely to be different?

Bo Xilai will be the highest-ranking leader in the history of the People's Republic of China (PRC), besides Mao's widow Jiang Qing and other members of the so-called Gang of Four at the end of the Cultural Revolution, to go through this kind of criminal trial. The charges against Bo are more severe than those faced by two previous Politburo members accused of wrongdoing. Beijing party secretary Chen Xitong received a sixteen-year sentence and Shanghai party secretary Chen Liangyu was sentenced to eighteen years in prison. Bo will likely receive somewhere between twenty years and a suspended death sentence, similar to what was given to his wife.

A likely severe punishment for Bo can be seen from the long list of the charges against him, including obstruction of justice, abuse of power, violation of party rules, corruption, womanizing, bribery, and other possible crimes. But most important, in my view, is the last charge, which states that during the investigation of the Neil Heywood murder case they found evidence of some other criminal conduct by Bo. We do not know what this purported criminal conduct included, but it must be quite severe. If the offense were trivial, it would have been included on the earlier list of charges. This could indicate, as some people in China have suspected, that Bo Xilai is under investigation for involvement in multiple murders. There could also be other sensational charges against him, such as releasing secret information to or pursuing illegal business deals with foreigners, as speculated in Chinese social media. These unspecified charges may or may not be raised in trial, but their existence gives the leadership a very powerful card to play. Party leaders are sending a very strong message to Bo that if he does not cooperate or confess and continues to behave arrogantly, the party leadership will charge him with even more serious crimes.

Previously, some observers in China and abroad criticized the fact that the cases against Gu Kailai, Wang Lijun, and Bo Xilai were being treated separately, with Bo's name not even being mentioned in the first two verdicts. One can, of course, challenge the integrity of Gu's and Wang's trials on legal grounds, but politically this is the wise strategy from the leadership's perspective—to first close the case against Gu, who confessed to the murder of Neil Heywood, and also close the case against Wang, who gave a full account of what happened after Heywood's death. The findings of these two previous cases have laid the groundwork for the investigation of Bo.

In terms of differences, Gu's trial was largely semi-open, while Wang's trial had two parts. The first was a secret, closed-door trial because the authorities claimed that the case involved national security issues, and the second was a semi-open trial. To some degree, this has created a precedent for Bo's trial. Discussion of extremely sensitive issues could be reserved for a secret trial. But it is important to point out that both liberal public intellectuals and left-wing intellectuals disagree about virtually everything except the need for an open and just trial.

Additionally, from these three cases you can see an interesting phenomenon. In the Gu case, corruption was not emphasized and not even mentioned in the verdict. It was discussed during the trial, but in the verdict the leadership did not emphasize that issue, likely based on the consideration that—in the eyes of the Chinese public—official corruption is a widespread phenomenon. The use of this charge against a political leader and family members is usually seen by the public as an excuse to get rid of a political rival. The authorities thus seemed reluctant to use this charge against Gu. However, in the Wang case, one of the four charges was that he received a total of three million yuan in bribes from a Chinese businessman who was very close to Bo. Certainly we already know from the announcement that Bo has also been charged with corruption. This change in strategy may reflect a new consensus among the leadership that it must do something serious to regain public confidence in anti-corruption measures. Party leaders will likely announce a new, stronger mechanism to combat official corruption at the upcoming 18th Party Congress, which could explain their willingness to make these kinds of charges against a former colleague.


What does Friday's announcement tell us about the unity of the leadership in terms of its handling of the Bo Xilai case?

Currently, there's a lot of speculation in Chinese social media and overseas that top leaders are seriously divided along factional lines on the issue of whether or not to punish Bo Xilai in a criminal proceeding. I certainly disagree with that interpretation. While I am fully aware of the importance of factional politics in present-day China, I believe that it is even more important for the outside world to understand when and on what issues competing factions unite rather than diverge. When CCP leaders face an embarrassing scandal and major crisis in terms of the party's legitimacy, they simply cannot afford to advance factional interests at the risk of a sociopolitical uprising.

In my assessment, from day one—when Wang Lijun went to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu—all top leaders decided to cut off their ties with Bo, particularly those in the same faction. Jiang Zemin reportedly issued some very strong words about punishing Bo. While Jiang's statement is not verified, it was widely circulated in Beijing that he said the Bo Xilai scandal, particularly his wife's murder case, crossed the moral bottom-line of civilization and therefore the punishment should be severe, in order to allow the CCP to survive the current legitimacy crisis.

I have always believed that the ongoing crisis triggered by Wang's dramatic arrival at the U.S. Consulate in February is not just about Bo, or the abuses of power within the Chongqing police force, or the arrogance of the "princelings," but about the very nature of the legitimacy of the CCP. The Bo Xilai case, in a dramatic and astonishing way, has revealed the flaws of China's political system. How could he have been considered a rising star while engaging in the kinds of behavior alleged in the long list of charges we now have? How could this iron-fisted leader, most famous for cracking down on organized crime, be himself a mafia kingpin?

I do see the leadership in the wake of this crisis leaning more toward unity and solidarity, but that doesn't necessarily mean they agree on how to logistically or strategically handle this case. Some leaders may worry that the charges will unintentionally cause strong reactions one way or another. The Chinese public is now divided on virtually every issue, including the Bo Xilai case. Liberal intellectuals and legal professionals are very angry about what Bo did over the past few years, such as singing "red songs" and wanting to return to the Cultural Revolution, glorifying the Mao era, and also using harsh policing methods to run Chongqing, which frequently disregarded proper legal procedures. Consequently, these people are very critical of Bo and hope there will be a severe punishment to prevent the future rise of this kind of demagogue.

But some people are actually quite sympathetic to Bo. Bo's style of populism resonated well among certain sectors of Chinese society. Bo still has a significant number of supporters in China. His nationalist or ultranationalist views, his tendency to use violence to resolve socioeconomic conflicts, his pronounced hatred of the rich, and his reputation as a leader who can get things done are traits that resonate deeply with some groups. You can see this from the recent anti-Japanese demonstrations where a small number of people held up Mao's portrait, suggesting that they want a strong leader with charisma and guts who is willing to take bold actions. Bo meets all these criteria. So these protests send a warning to Chinese leaders that if they charge him without solid evidence, some people will grow even more sympathetic to his cause. The case must be handled in a very sensitive way.


What is the significance of the charge of womanizing, which some might consider to be a moral issue rather than a crime?

This charge, to a certain extent, is not unique, because the charges previously brought against other leaders, such as former Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu, also included womanizing. Another trial is pending involving former railway minister Liu Zhijun, who has been charged with numerous counts of corruption and also with womanizing, in the same language used in Bo's charges: "maintaining improper sexual relationships with multiple women." These kinds of charges merely confirm popular rumors about official misconduct. Mistresses, or what the Chinese call "ernai," are often among the motivators of official corruption, as officials seek to offer villas or luxury cars to their female companions. In the case of Bo, the leadership wants to use these charges to show the public how decadent and hypocritical he was. It's certainly better to examine these issues through the legal process than to cover them up, but the public reaction is to raise questions about similar conduct by other leaders.

The charge of womanizing is certainly like something out of an American movie, "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," but this is now also intermixed with defection, deception, and assassination. This case is quite dramatic, and the central climax of this drama will now start to unfold with these specific charges against Bo, including the issue of womanizing, which usually attracts much public attention. Some prominent public intellectuals have even called for releasing the names of Bo's mistresses, because otherwise some innocent women (movie stars and anchorwomen) might be seen as likely suspects.


Alongside the announcement about Bo Xilai, Chinese leaders also announced a date for the upcoming 18th Party Congress. Why will the Party Congress be held in early November rather than in mid-October?

In addition to the need to prevent a possible public relations disaster in handing the Bo Xilai crisis, there are several other difficult issues that require much deliberation and negotiation by competing political camps, which may explain the delay.

The first and probably most crucial issue is personnel appointments. The most important appointments are to the Politburo Standing Committee, but Politburo and Central Military Commission (CMC) appointments are also important. In addition, there are some related issues, such as whether Hu Jintao will continue as chairman of the CMC after the 18th Party Congress, as Jiang Zemin did after the 16th Party Congress. The new leadership will soon need to deal with two retired party bosses who will remain politically powerful, so it needs to create new norms or even build a consensus to prevent too much interference from retired leaders. If Hu steps down as chairman of the CMC, his protege Li Keqiang, as the presumptive premier, might be considered for a vice-chairmanship in the commission, as part of negotiation between competing factions.

Second, there are important issues related to whether there should be nine or seven members on the Politburo Standing Committee. The number itself is not important in terms of gains or losses by a particular faction, but it is important that the leadership may decide to eliminate two functional positions. One is the propaganda czar and the other is the police czar. The decision to eliminate those two positions and reduce the membership from nine to seven is closely linked to political reform. Consolidating the legal system may require preventing the police czar from overruling the legal field, and leaders also do not want the propaganda czar to interfere in decision-making based on ideological considerations. Both steps are important for ensuring media transparency, the rule of law, and intra-party democracy and would be an encouraging sign that the political reform agenda is moving forward.

Third, in my view, we only know the candidates for the Standing Committee—no one knows the real seven or nine people, not even Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin. The reason is that there's another unresolved issue—whether to select high-level leaders through party elections involving "more candidates than seats." This practice has been previously used for delegates in the lower levels of leadership: around 2,270 delegates elect the roughly 370 Central Committee members and alternates, for example. But now the party is considering also having Central Committee members elect the Politburo or even the Politburo Standing Committee. For example, to elect a 25-member Politburo, the party might put 28 candidates on the ballot and then eliminate the 3 with the least number of votes; or a 7-member Standing Committee might be elected from a ballot with 8 candidates.

If the Politburo is selected using this method, it's possible that a couple of prime candidates for the Standing Committee could be eliminated, since the members of the Standing Committee must be Politburo members. Or even worse, potential Politburo and Standing Committee members could even be eliminated earlier in the Central Committee election. Maintaining the balance of power between different factions would also become more complicated in this sort of election, as it could open the door for further changes such as candidates lobbying or campaigning for political positions. On the other hand, if party leaders do not institute greater intra-party democracy, they must rely on older, increasingly inadequate forms of legitimacy.

We should not forget that the Bo Xilai case is related to the difficulty of selecting leaders when powerful figures like Mao or Deng are gone. The CCP needs to find a new mechanism to select the top leaders. All of Bo's earlier activities were really aimed at seeking a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee or even higher, because he sensed—perhaps earlier than other leaders—that the old game was over. But in trying something new, he caused a lot of nervousness in some circles, perhaps because he pursued this course prematurely or perhaps just because of his personality. Trying to change the game in terms of elite selection was perhaps the right thing to do, but Bo was the wrong person to do it. Whatever the case, that is what caused all these domino effects later on. The reason Neil Heywood was able to blackmail Gu Kailai, according to the most probable accounts, is that he could say: "If you do not do these things, I will release all this information that will jeopardize your husband's chances of being promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee." If the CCP leadership can hold an intra-party election—that is, one involving more candidates than seats—it will give the party a new source of legitimacy. Yet this strategy also involves risks that will require sound institutional developments to mitigate. While Bo has been purged for his alleged crimes and his "violation of party rules," until a more legitimate mechanism to select leaders is implemented, these problems will likely continue to undermine the party leadership's unity and ability to govern.


Did the delay also possibly reflect ideological differences or policy debates among the leadership?

Yes, absolutely. During the Party Congress, they may amend the party constitution, and certainly they will issue a report, presented by Hu Jintao. In terms of amending the constitution, CCP leaders may—in the wake of all these recent crises, particularly the crisis in public confidence—emphasize the rule of law and the supremacy of the PRC constitution. In other words, they may emphasize that the party should be under the law rather than above the law and under the constitution instead of above the constitution. Some leaders, such as Wen Jiabao, already argue this point. But as one can imagine, not all leaders agree with that view, because it opens the door for fundamental political changes. Consequently, they need more time to think through these kinds of amendment issues.

As for economic policy, the party needs to seriously discuss whether or how to control the monopolies of the state-owned enterprises (SOE). The gigantic flagship companies are the primary source of official corruption and pose major obstacles to transforming the Chinese economy from an export-led economy based on cheap labor to an innovation-driven and consumption-led economy, since SOE monopolies provide less incentive for innovation. On the other hand, cracking down on SOEs will require top leaders to challenge arguably the most powerful interest groups in the country. Other economic issues that should be addressed at the Party Congress include promoting financial liberalization, handling the property bubble, and rethinking central-local economic relations.

Finally, party leaders are also examining foreign policy issues, such as the recent tension with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. They do not want the Party Congress to take place under the shadow of a military scuffle with Japan. They also want to show solidarity and address foreign policy challenges with a single voice through consensus.

All these debates, involving different views or disagreements, are natural. But sooner or later party leaders need to reach agreement, and the recent announcement certainly indicates that they've achieved a certain degree of consensus. My sense is that the party will unite under Xi Jinping, particularly in the wake of both domestic and international challenges. How long they can maintain that unity is unclear. But the balance between the Jiang camp and the Hu camp, which I described in the previous interview, means that the party will likely maintain the system in a relatively stable way through the 18th Party Congress.


Earlier you provocatively asked if the Bo Xilai case was a blessing or a curse for China. Are we any closer to answering that question?

At the moment, we still do not know the answer. Decisions by the central leadership currently reflect the need for damage control and improving the party's image rather than a real consensus for the rule of law. But sometimes the development of the rule of law happens through necessity, not due to the noble ideas of political leaders.

A review of the recent intellectual discourse in China reveals a heated discussion about the current risk of revolution in the country. One of the most popular books in intellectual circles today is the Chinese translation of Alexis de Tocqueville's classic study, The Old Regime and the Revolution. One frequently quoted passage is Tocqueville's argument that revolution usually takes place not when the old regime resists change but, rather, when it begins to reform itself. Conservative hardliners in the CCP leadership may ultimately decide to resist political reform at all costs, rendering the current consensus on reform either wishful thinking or a temporary condition. Some policy differences in the leadership, especially concerning political reform and personnel appointments, could become contentious and even result in factional infighting spiraling out of control. The new leadership may find it increasingly difficult to build the kind of consensus necessary to govern effectively. Thus, the upcoming Bo Xilai trial may polarize Chinese society and enhance the risk of sociopolitical unrest.

However, the Bo Xilai case has also served as a wake-up call for the party and clearly revealed many of the flaws in the Chinese political system. The challenges are real, and one cannot say definitively that the party leadership can overcome all these crises to regain public confidence. More systematic institutional measures are needed to deal with corruption, introduce intra-party democracy, and, most importantly, demonstrate a real commitment to the rule of law. The leadership also needs to eventually allow for an open and independent media, because the recent rumors about Xi Jinping's absence underscore the fact that the mainstream media has not been able to keep abreast of changes in society. The more the state restricts the media, the more sensational the rumors, due to the absence of a trusted and reliable news source.

One should also not underestimate the ability of constructive forces in society—such as the legal profession, private entrepreneurs, the emerging middle class, the increasingly commercial media, and various interest groups including foreign business firms operating in China—to call for strong measures to deal with widespread corruption. In addition, one should not underestimate the significance of checks and balances among competing political camps and the possibility for real political reform in the wake of the recent crisis.

Thus, although we still do not know for sure whether the crisis is a blessing or a curse, the party's handling of the Bo Xilai case gives some hope that things are moving in the right direction. Time will tell whether this landmark trial can provide the CCP leadership with the confidence to pursue bold and genuine political reforms and provide the Chinese public with renewed confidence in a reborn ruling party. If not, China is headed toward even greater trouble, not only because demagogic figures in the mold of Bo Xilai may be even more brazen and despicable in the future, but also because the regime will lose all of the credibility and legitimacy that it so desperately needs to restore.


Cheng Li (PhD, Princeton University) is the Director of Research and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center. His research focuses on political leadership, generational change, and technological development in China. He is a world-renowned expert on Chinese leadership and elite politics and also serves as co-chair of the advisory committee for NBR’s China’s Rising Leaders program. Dr. Li’s latest book is The Road to Zhongnanhai: High-level Leadership Groups on the Eve of the 18th Party Congress (2012, in Chinese).

Jonathan Walton is a Project Manager and former Next Generation Fellow at NBR.


Cheng Li (PhD, Princeton University) is the Director of Research and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center. He serves as co-chair of the advisory committee for NBR’s China's Rising Leaders program.



In a Q&A published on April 18, 2012, Cheng Li discussed the announcement that Bo Xilai had been stripped of his leadership positions in government and the Chinese Communist Party: The Bo Xilai Crisis: A Curse or a Blessing for China?