The Bo Xilai Crisis
A Curse or a Blessing for China?

Interview with Cheng Li
April 18, 2012

China currently faces a daunting political crisis, due to the ongoing scandal riveting the country as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) prepares for its upcoming leadership transition. Bo Xilai—formerly party chief of Chongqing and a member of China’s Politburo—has been stripped of his posts due to an investigation stemming from Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun’s February 2012 visit to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. NBR spoke with Cheng Li about the significance of these events for China’s upcoming leadership transition and their implications for future Chinese political reforms.

An Interview with Cheng Li

By Anton Wishik
April 18, 2012

China currently faces a daunting political crisis, due to the ongoing scandal riveting the country as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) prepares for its upcoming leadership transition. Bo Xilai—formerly party chief of Chongqing and a member of China’s Politburo—has been stripped of his posts due to an investigation stemming from Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun’s February 2012 visit to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. During his conversations with U.S. officials, it is believed that Wang revealed damaging information about Bo and sought refuge due to his fear of persecution. After spending a night at the consulate, Wang was taken into custody by Chinese officials, a fate later shared by Bo and his wife Gu Kailai. Wang is currently being investigated, while Bo has been accused of various transgressions and Gu is suspected of involvement in the death of British citizen Neil Heywood in late 2011.

Bo, the son of a famous Chinese revolutionary, came to national prominence during his time as party chief of Chongqing due to his charisma, his ruthless crackdown against organized crime, and his promotion of Maoist songs and imagery. Before being assigned to lead Chongqing, Bo served as minister of commerce and mayor of Dalian in Liaoning province. In the months prior to this scandal, Bo was viewed as a rising star and a candidate for promotion to the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee.

NBR spoke with Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese elite politics and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, about the significance of these events, what they mean for China’s upcoming leadership transition, and their implications for future Chinese political reforms.

How significant is this crisis for China?

My overall assessment is that the dismissal of Bo Xilai is a very positive event in China’s political development. While it has already constituted the most serious political crisis since the 1989 Tiananmen incident (and perhaps since the 1971 Lin Biao incident), the Hu Jintao–Wen Jiabao administration may have successfully avoided an even bigger crisis. In stark contrast with the 1989 Tiananmen incident, China’s economy and society have hardly been disrupted, at least up until now. This reflects the maturity of Chinese society and the strength of the country as a whole. To a great extent, this crisis has been a good thing for China. It not only reveals major flaws in the Chinese political system, but may also help the Chinese leadership, intellectual communities, and the general public reach a new consensus, thus contributing to bold and genuine political reforms. However, if the leadership fails to seize this great opportunity, the CCP will be in greater jeopardy in the years to come.

What is the Bo Xilai case really about: factional infighting, Bo’s notorious egotism, or ideological conflict?

To a certain extent all of the above, though none of these explanations, nor any combination of them, adequately tells the whole story. Something far greater is at stake.

Bo Xilai’s story is certainly linked to China’s present-day factional politics, which I characterize as “one party, two coalitions.” One coalition is led by former president Jiang Zemin’s protégés. While the core of this coalition used to be the so-called Shanghai Gang, “princelings” (leaders who come from high-ranking family backgrounds) have become more central since the fall of Shanghai party boss Chen Liangyu on corruption charges in 2006. Bo Xilai is a princeling, as his father Bo Yibo was a revolutionary veteran who served as vice premier. The other coalition primarily consists of former officials from the Chinese Communist Youth League and is led by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. These two coalitions fight with each other over power, influence, and policy initiatives. Bo Xilai’s career advancement can certainly be attributed to his princeling background and his patron-client ties with Jiang Zemin.

Bo’s downfall is also related to his own egotistical personality and notorious ambition. While his ambitions were most recently focused on achieving a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee, it would have not stopped there. In the months preceding the crisis, members of Bo’s staff spread the rumor that he could become China’s next premier. In addition, Su Wei, a scholar close to Bo at the Chongqing Party School, compared Bo Xilai and Chongqing mayor Huang Qifan to former leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in comments circulated in both the Chongqing and national media.

The Bo episode is also related to ideological conflict, as he was associated with China’s “new left” thinking—especially through his Mao-style campaigns, such as the “smash the black” anti–organized crime campaign—and advocated an ultra-egalitarian and ultra-nationalist development model for China, known as the “Chongqing model.”

But this episode is really more than the sum of these factors. Most importantly, it involves Wang Lijun’s attempted defection to the United States and the charges against Bo’s wife related to the murder or assassination of British citizen Neil Heywood. The Chinese public has been shocked by both incidents, since this is a very unusual set of events in CCP history. How is it possible that national hero Wang Lijun and one of China’s top leaders are capable of such actions? When these kinds of charges are involved, all Chinese leaders—regardless of which faction they belong to—will not support Bo Xilai any longer, because the current crisis poses a challenge to the legitimacy of the CCP itself. The stakes are very high, and the challenge facing the CCP leadership is intimidating.

How was Bo able to stay in power for so long?

To better answer this question, we need to go back to factional politics: the tensions between the princelings coalition and the Youth League coalition.

Specifically, the other princeling leaders wanted to use Bo to their advantage. Within elite circles, Bo was nicknamed “the cannon” because he was always ready to attack his political rivals, including Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, and Bo’s liberal counterpart—Guangdong party chief Wang Yang. Thus, he was considered a much-needed weapon by the other princelings, though they did not necessarily like or trust him. On the other hand, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao saw Bo as a liability for their opposition because they believed Bo’s campaigns were doomed to fail and that he ultimately would undermine the strength of the princelings due to his divisive tactics. In addition, his Cultural Revolution–style initiatives were seen by Hu and Wen as remnants of the past with no hope of succeeding. Therefore, they may have been even less concerned about Bo than some of the other heavyweights in the princeling camp.

In fact, Bo had many enemies, including at least four major groups: (1) liberal intellectuals, who often regarded him not only as a Maoist, but also as a Nazi-like leader who often singled out particular social groups as targets; (2) lawyers and legal professionals alarmed at his roughshod treatment of Chinese legal practices in Chongqing and Dalian; (3) the majority of political and military elites, who feared Bo did not play according to the rules and would take China down the wrong path; and (4) entrepreneurs in China and abroad alarmed at Bo’s anti-market tendencies, evident in his rough handling of Wal-Mart stores in Chongqing.

At the 2007 Party Congress, Bo had aggressively sought two positions, membership in the Politburo and a vice-premiership. In my view, the fact that he got the former but not the latter was the result of a compromise between the two camps. Assigning him to an interior city like Chongqing was an effort on the part of Hu and Wen to reduce Bo’s influence and power. While there were some unconfirmed reports during his first few months on the job that he was deeply dissatisfied with his new assignment, in the end he did a remarkable job of putting Chongqing on China’s political map and, for a time, effectively turned it into his own personal kingdom. Regardless, prior to this most recent scandal, there had been long-standing concerns among the Chinese political establishment that Bo would go too far and undermine the unity of the central leadership of the CCP. Even before the latest scandal, some in Beijing felt that Bo would not receive a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee because he was so divisive and could cause trouble for the CCP as a whole. Certainly, with Wang Lijun’s actions, Bo Xilai’s career was over immediately.

Although the princelings did support Bo and used him when convenient, this does not mean that they gave him a blank check to do as he pleased. Just as there is political infighting within the political parties in the United States, the relationship among members of a Chinese coalition is both cooperative and competitive.

For example, Xi Jinping was becoming increasingly wary of Bo. Much has been made of Xi’s visit to Chongqing in December 2011, interpreted by some as an endorsement of Bo. Five Politburo Standing Committee members visited Chongqing, and Bo interpreted this as an endorsement of his leadership and his Chongqing model. But if you look at the details, the motivations of at least two of these visitors are ambiguous, including those of He Guoqiang and Xi. He Guoqiang and Bo Xilai are on negative terms, as some of the people arrested in Bo’s anti-crime campaigns were He’s protégés. Therefore it cannot be argued that He went to Chongqing to support Bo. There must have been another reason for the visit, such as cutting some sort of deal. As for Xi Jinping, if you look at his public speech during the visit, he did not completely endorse Bo, saying that some things in Chongqing should be improved. Thus, though the visit was widely interpreted as an endorsement of Bo, some Chinese intellectuals immediately picked up on the fact that Xi’s speech could be interpreted as a critique of Bo.

Several Chinese commentators have suggested that this whole scandal was planned by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. Is there any truth to that?

It is unimaginable that a Chinese leader would have told Wang Lijun to go to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. No one would dare to make such an order, since doing so would be considered treason. That decision was made by Wang Lijun himself. On the other hand, there is some evidence that an investigation of Bo and Wang had been going on long before Wang’s visit to the consulate. At the very least, there was an investigation of Wang from his time working in Liaoning province. Gu Kailai has long been suspected of corruption, though it is unclear whether past investigations of her were initiated by senior leaders or just routine actions based on reports submitted to the Central Discipline Inspection Commission of the CCP. As for Bo, there have been many charges related to his tenure in Chongqing involving torture, false charges, and corruption, and investigations of these charges may have been going on for some time as well. Again, it is not clear if these were actions taken by senior leaders, but it is noteworthy that there was already much public speculation about charges against Bo. Though they may have been surprising to some foreign observers, these charges were widely discussed by elites in Beijing, Liaoning, and Chongqing.

I do have doubts about the way Wang Lijun is being portrayed as having approached Bo regarding an investigation into Bo’s and Gu’s involvement in the death of Neil Heywood. This does not make sense to me. Wang’s entire career had been based on his patron-client ties with Bo. He was considered Bo’s close confidant, knew many if not all of Bo’s dirty secrets, and had done many highly questionable things during his three years as Bo’s police chief in Chongqing. Therefore, given their close ties, it puzzles me that Wang would have challenged Bo on Gu’s potential role in Heywood’s death. Wang may have felt that he simply could not cover up this case. Still, I think there are probably some missing pieces to this story.

It is true that Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao never liked Bo Xilai. In the past year and a half, Wen has publicly (though implicitly) criticized Bo on a number of occasions, mentioning that some leaders were liars. These comments were mainly targeted at Bo. Remember, Bo Xilai’s mother committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution and his father was tortured. Despite this, Bo often said positive things about this period in China’s history while he was leader of Chongqing, which could have led to Wen’s criticism.

It is unclear whether Bo would have fallen if Wang Lijun had not gone to the U.S. consulate. I believe it would have been much more difficult to purge Bo without Wang’s actions due to strong factional tensions within the leadership, as Bo not only represented himself but also a social movement. Even today, some people are suspicious of whether this entire incident is true and whether the death of Heywood has anything to do with Bo and Gu. Some even accuse the United States of involvement in a conspiracy. However, the evidence provided by Wang Lijun made the case against Bo much easier and clear-cut. Thus, without Wang Lijun’s dramatic visit to the consulate, removing Bo would have been much more difficult for his opponents to achieve, though given Bo’s actions and the ongoing investigation of him, he may have fallen eventually even without this crisis.

What’s next for Bo Xilai, his wife, and Wang Lijun?

The charges against Bo’s wife Gu Kailai are extremely serious and could potentially lead to capital punishment or life imprisonment. In my opinion, Wang Lijun will also be imprisoned, though his sentence will be much less severe, largely because he has contributed to Bo’s fall by reporting some of Bo’s transgressions to the central leadership. However, the Politburo will want to send a very clear message that passing classified information to a foreign government will not be tolerated. Besides that, Wang may also be charged with abuses stemming from his time as police chief of Chongqing. As for Bo, the next step is being formally expelled from the Central Committee and Politburo, since he has merely been suspended from these posts. This will take place at the Central Committee meeting, which will likely be held early in the summer, at which time we will have more information about the charges against him.

Currently, there is a long list of possible charges against Bo. The party document released in early April stated that he had violated party regulations. Previously, the baseline charge had been that Bo had not managed his subordinates well, a reference to his appointment of Wang. This by itself was not considered a violation of party rules, but simply poor judgment. I interpret the newly released document’s reference to rule violations as an upgrading of the charges, which implies violations by Bo after Wang was in custody. These could potentially include an effort to cover up certain details of the case, challenging the authority of the central government, or even an effort to split the party leadership. Earlier charges included accusations that Bo wanted to establish a politically independent “kingdom” in Chongqing, bugged the conversations of other leaders, and used terror and torture in his anti-crime campaigns, as well as various corruption charges and accusations that his close ties with foreigner Neil Heywood violated regulations for senior leaders. The ongoing criminal investigation will touch on Bo’s business dealings, the charge that he may have paid leftist intellectuals to help propagate his radical ideas, and—most importantly—the charge that he, along with his wife, may have been involved in the murder of Heywood. I think it is highly likely that Bo will face life in prison as a result of these charges.

What does Bo’s fall mean for China’s factional politics? Do you expect more senior leaders to fall?

The party leadership will be extremely cautious and not expand the scope of the Bo Xilai case to other leaders. Purges will be relatively limited. The fact that certain leaders closely affiliated with Bo, such as Huang Qifan, are still free implies that the top leadership does not intend to punish too many people. The fact that the country is on the eve of the 18th Party Congress, with so many destabilizing factors, will also lead the leadership to limit the scope of targeted officials.

Therefore, though the Bo case is a victory for Hu and Wen, this victory will not necessarily translate into more seats for their coalition on the Politburo Standing Committee. To a certain extent, this explains why Guangdong’s liberal party chief Wang Yang has been reluctant to claim victory since there still could be a backlash against him. The makeup of the future Politburo Standing Committee will largely be determined through compromises between the two coalitions. The balance of power within this system will not be easily changed. If the princeling faction collapsed, this would constitute an unimaginable revolution with implications for Chinese politics and social instability ten times greater than the Bo scandal. Thus, at the moment, there is a tremendous incentive for the party’s top leadership to preserve the current structure of “one party, two coalitions,” and show unity and solidarity.

Evidence of the Chinese leadership’s unity on this matter can be found in the man who replaced Bo as party chief of Chongqing, Zhang Dejiang, a protégé of Jiang Zemin and part of the same princeling coalition as Bo. This appointment means that a deal has been made and the top leadership of the party is united. To a certain extent, this is similar to what happened in 2006 with the fall of Shanghai party boss Chen Liangyu. All those who have followed Chen as Shanghai party boss, including Xi Jinping, have been protégés of Jiang Zemin, just as Chen was.

Consequently, it is highly likely that Bo’s potential seat on the Politburo Standing Committee will be taken by someone from the princeling coalition. Zhang Dejiang would likely have attained a seat on the committee regardless of Bo’s fall, though he will now probably receive an even more important position. Zhang Gaoli, the party chief of Tianjin, and Shanghai party chief Yu Zhengsheng, both protégés of Jiang Zemin, are now likely to go further with Bo gone. Though we do not know for sure which specific officials will receive which posts, I do think it is highly likely that the factional balance of power on the Politburo Standing Committee will remain unchanged with five seats for one coalition and four for the other.

What challenges and opportunities has the Bo crisis now presented to China’s leadership?

The Chinese public is still reeling from the shock of these events. The CCP has been responsible for a variety of political campaigns and serious mistakes in its long history, but it is not generally known for murder and assassination. But now, this scandal has occurred in relation to one of China’s rising political stars. We still do not know exactly how the public will react, particularly since this has occurred during a time of genuine dissatisfaction with official corruption, state monopolies, economic disparity, a lack of transparency and accountability, the privilege of princelings, and other issues. Consequently, this is a major legitimacy crisis for the CCP leadership as a whole.

However, a crisis is also an opportunity. Before the Bo crisis, there was great division among the leadership, intellectuals, and the public on China’s path forward. Now there is an opportunity to reach a new consensus and seriously pursue political reforms. This crisis has revealed the flaws in China’s political system, including the danger of allowing a demagogue like Bo to emerge, as well as the nepotism and corruption within the system.

The following profound transformations need to be made if the CCP wants to regain the public’s confidence and remain in power:

  • First, in addition to handling the Bo case through established legal mechanisms, a call for legal reforms—including judiciary reform, the rule of law, and constitutionalism—will become very important. This could be a wonderful opportunity for liberal leaders, and to a certain extent all leaders, to realize that this is the best way to protect themselves in a country that lacks the rule of law.
  • Second, the CCP should pursue bolder intra-party elections, which could involve voting as a means of assigning leadership positions. For example, to select the members of the next Politburo Standing Committee the CCP could put ten or eleven candidates on a ballot and have the Central Committee select nine of them. When selecting the 25 members of the larger Politburo, 28 candidates could be voted on. I am not arguing that this should be instituted in five to ten years, but rather instituted immediately for the upcoming 18th Party Congress.
  • Third, media regulation is also in need of reform. China has entered a “season of rumors,” and social media has become so powerful that Chinese authorities often shut down domestic micro-blogging services. This is not an effective way to run the country. The reason people go to social media for their news is that the official media does not tell the full story. Thus, the way to avoid the sensationalism produced by social media is to open up the official media. This is not only in the interest of liberals, but the Chinese government itself. The more these sensational stories are suppressed, the more powerful they become.

The Cultural Revolution and the 1989 Tiananmen incident are two of the great disasters in the history of the CCP, but in the aftermath of these events you see opening and reform after the Cultural Revolution and the acceleration of China’s market transition and integration with the outside world after Tiananmen, respectively. Positive political developments came out of these terrible events. There is hope that something similar may yet happen following the Bo crisis. Lessons will be learned, a consensus will be reached, and bold decisions will be pursued. Wen Jiabao, in recent comments at the National People’s Congress, said very clearly that the party-state leadership system needs to be changed and that the rule of law should be emphasized in the handling of Wang Lijun’s case in order for the CCP to endure the test of history.

Learning from this crisis is not a choice for the CCP as much as it is a necessity. If nothing changes, the party will continue to lose its credibility. I believe the characterization of the Chinese political system as “resilient authoritarianism” is incorrect. While the prevailing view had been that this year’s leadership procession would go smoothly, two years ago I argued that the upcoming succession would be highly problematic and feature some sort of major crisis. Now the general sentiment is that China is in a terrible situation due to a vicious power struggle, but I am more optimistic. China has removed a major danger and avoided the worst scenario, which would have been taking the country down a Maoist, ultranationalist path. Of course, Bo’s chances of accomplishing this were always slim, but now they are close to zero. This is solid progress, and a reason to be more optimistic about China’s future.

I am not arguing that Bo’s downfall will only have positive ramifications and that nothing will go wrong. However, there are always opportunities to learn lessons and make improvements, and I think the potential for China to do so is not insignificant. It is worth remembering that the assassination of a Taiwanese writer by agents of Taiwan’s Nationalist Party was a trigger that helped spur the island’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy in the mid-1980s. Similarly, China must now either make changes to be on the right side of history or be left behind. The Bo Xilai crisis can be either a curse or blessing for the CCP—a curse if the party pretends that its rule can remain as before, but a blessing if the party decides to transform itself.

Anton Wishik is a 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. 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).