As the mystery behind the dramatic sacking of high-flying Politburo member Bo Xilai deepens, one consequence is clear: The upset threatens to derail the hard work put in by the Chinese Communist Party to construct its leadership for the next decade, scheduled to be unveiled later this year. Selection of the all-powerful nine-member standing committee of the Politburo will determine the country’s future course and its interaction with the world.
Bo, the party secretary of Chongqing, China’s wartime capital in the Southwest, with a population of 30 million, had been working overtime to join the party’s most powerful body and, in the process, had divided the leadership.
Since taking charge of Chongqing in 2007, Bo had drawn attention to himself and his “Chongqing model” of development, including a crackdown, supposedly on organized crime, and praise for Mao Zedong with Cultural Revolution songs.
The so-called “Chongqing model” featured favour for state-owned enterprises, equality over productivity, the redistribution of wealth and a police crackdown with thousands of arrests.
Bo had attracted overseas visitors, such as Henry Kissinger, and Chinese leaders, including Vice President Xi Jinping and security chief Zhou Yongkang. Xi visited Chongqing in late 2010, enthusiastic about Bo’s achievements, including “singing red and hitting black” and Chongqing’s public housing policy. Among China’s current leaders, Zhou Yongkang, responsible for security, was thought to be especially close to Bo, supporting the crackdown on supposed mafia, termed “hitting black,” without giving much thought to rights of suspects or even defence lawyers. One lawyer, Li Zhuang, was jailed on a charge of having asked his client to falsify evidence.
However, President Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao avoided visiting Chongqing or giving Bo their blessings.
While Bo’s political beliefs are unclear, he staked his claim for a seat on the standing committee by promoting nostalgia for Maoist times. For that reason, he became a champion for the country’s leftists.
Since the number of standing committee seats is extremely limited— two of the nine are already accounted for by Xi, slated to become general secretary and president, and Li Keqiang, to succeed Wen— Bo had to block likely rivals, the most obvious of whom was Wang Yang— Bo’s predecessor in Chongqing and now party secretary of Guangdong Province— associated with the reformist “Guangdong model” of development.
Bo’s crackdown on crime was, in itself, a challenge to Wang, suggesting that he had allowed crime to flourish. The 2010 execution of the former deputy police chief also cast a shadow over Wang’s tenure, deliberately or otherwise.
All nine standing committee members, including Hu, Wen, Xi and Zhou Yongkang, made a joint appearance on April 3 when they took part in tree-planting activities in Beijing, presenting a united front after Bo’s sacking.
And Xi, in an article alluding to Bo, warned of a “need for vigilance against leading cadres who go in for superficiality, for demagoguery, and for seeking personal name and fame.”
The central government has not repudiated Chongqing’s achievements over the last five years. Li Yuanchao, who flew from Beijing to announce the leadership changes, said the achievements were made “under the correct leadership of the party and the State Council.”
Even before the February incident involving Wang Lijun— Chongqing’s vice mayor and former police chief who sought sanctuary in the US consulate in Chengdu— Bo had become a highly controversial figure who had made enemies in Beijing.
The Washington Post, 5 March, reported the story of Li Jun, once one of Chongqing’s richest men and now penniless, on the run outside of China, fearing for his life and leaving behind $700 million in assets.
Wang Lijun’s sojourn in the US consulate no doubt gave Bo’s enemies in Beijing an excuse to move against him. He’ll no longer get a seat on the standing committee and may well lose his Politburo seat in the fall.
Instead, Wang Yang’s chances for promotion now look excellent. Last year, when villagers in Wukan staged a revolt, Wang called the protest “a quest for fairness,” peacefully defusing the incident, winning him praise in overseas media. Wang’s handling of that incident has been contrasted with Bo’s crackdown.
Another seat on the standing committee may well be filled by Zhang Dejiang, a Politburo member who succeeded Bo in Chongqing. His expertise in North Korea would be invaluable in dealing with an area likely to remain problematic for years to come. But Zhang also has his weaknesses, including responsibility for the country’s railway problems as vice premier.
Another vice premier likely to make the Politburo standing committee is Wang Qishan, who holds the portfolio for finance and foreign trade and is the counterpart of US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in the US-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue. He’ll bring knowledge and sophistication in dealings with the United States.
Li Yuanchao, who as head of the Central Organization Department announced leadership changes in Chongqing, is likely to make it to the standing committee. He holds a doctorate in law from the Central Party School and also studied public administration at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, and is likely to be a voice for moderation in foreign policy.
Another likely candidate for the standing committee is Liu Yandong who, if promoted, will be the first woman to serve on that body. While she’s been mainly involved in party work and is currently head of the United Front Work Department, she also has responsibility for Hong Kong and recently helped bring about the election of Leung Chun-ying as the next chief executive.
Li Changchun is currently the standing committee member responsible for propaganda. His successor could well be Liu Yunshan, experienced in media and propaganda work, including a stint with the Xinhua News Agency and senior positions in the Propaganda Department. With China seeking to enhance its image internationally, he’ll play a key role.
With Bo’s erstwhile booster Zhou Yongkang also stepping down, another security chief is needed on the standing committee. This could be Meng Jianzhu, the minister of public security, although it would mean a double promotion for Meng since he’s currently not even on the Politburo. If Zhou hasn’t lost favor because of the Bo affair, he may well pick his own successor, and the two men are reported to be close.
All in all, such a combination of standing committee personnel, along with President Xi and Premier Li, will give China a ruling party that’s moderate and experienced in dealing with the outside world. The lineup might put foreign investors’ minds at ease.
Of course, leftists in China are disappointed that their champion was ousted. But leftism will no doubt rear its head again. China has never acted decisively against leftism and, in fact, officials put the word “left” in quotes in any criticism, as though genuinely leftist ideas could not possibly be wrong.
Mao himself was an ultra-leftist, responsible for launching political campaigns, including the Cultural Revolution, which cost millions and millions of lives. Yet today, his photograph hangs in Tiananmen Square, and his embalmed body is revered. Hopefully, Cultural Revolution songs will not once again be mandated— at least not for a while.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong–based journalist and writer whose book, Ancestors: 900 Years in the Life of a Chinese Family, was recently republished in paperback. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1. Rights:Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online