15 March 2012
Kerry Brown

Professor Kerry Brown

Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme


Bo Xilai's 'sacking' as Party boss of Chongqing is, it seems, the undignified end to one of the highest profile political careers of contemporary China.

The events of the last month since his deputy Wang Lijun walked into the US consulate in Chengdu reportedly seeking asylum have proved that, in China like anywhere else, politicians can never lose hold of the story. Since then, the leadership in Beijing has been playing catch up. 

Wang's visit to Chengdu couldn't have happened at a worse time. It was just before Vice President Xi Jinping's important visit to the US as heir apparent to Hu Jintao, and the convening of the national parliament at the start of March. The National People's Congress is soon expected to formalize the party changes; the atmosphere in Beijing is becoming frenetic. In that sense, events have shown that the pressure, at least for some, has got to be too much. 

Bo was high profile, but oddly isolated. He may have been party aristocracy through his father, Bo Yibo, but that's a mixed card to play in modern China, creating as much resentment as support. And his style of politics was contentious, rubbing many of his peers up the wrong way because of its strong element of self promotion. Perhaps the most difficult thing about him for many of his colleagues to stomach was his seeming celebration of revolutionary red values in campaigns in Chongqing. They had nothing substantial to do with the grim years of the Cultural Revolution four decades before, but they struck some as romanticising a period of modern Chinese history best left forgotten. Wen Jiabao, the current Premier, was explicit about this in his final comments at the National People's Congress on 12 March. For Wen and his generation, Bo's invocation of this era is provocative and hypocritical, especially in view of Bo himself spending four years during this period in jail, and having his mother tragically die at the time. They probably felt it proved there was nothing this man would not do to get power. 

Wang Lijun's fleeing was the trigger – but Bo's final downfall was most probably because he had violated one of the key rules of Chinese politics (or, for that matter, politics anywhere) – the need for more friends than enemies. When the crunch came, Bo's allies scarpered. Highly ironically, the executioner was not one of the current leadership hardmen, nor Hu Jintao himself, who stayed in character and made only the most limited comments, but the avuncular Wen Jiabao. As Margaret Thatcher learned from Geoffrey Howe in the UK, never underestimate the quiet, dependable, seemingly compliant ones. When they finally turn, they can really draw blood. 

This is a collective leadership. The efforts of the last few months and years have been to convince the world that the transition to the next generation of leaders later this year will run according to plan, and go smoothly. If dismissing Bo kills the tracks of the current rumours of divisions and infighting, and the leadership can get back into a huddle, then the risks of cutting such a substantial figure loose will have been worth it. But if rumblings continue and a few more nasty unexpected events happen, then the road to October is going to be a long, hard and uncertain one. And for a world that has come to expect stability and predictability in China, this is a very unwelcome thing. 

Also Read:

The Insider
Kerry Brown, Foreign Policy, February 2012