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How Bo Xilai Split the Party and Divided the People

An Interview with Pin Ho

After the 1989 Tiananmen Incident, Chinese political struggles became milder and more mundane. Members of the Politburo and politicians of higher rank rarely were toppled (except for Chen Liangyu in 2006) and ideology seldom triggered significant rifts. Bo Xilai changed all that. He was a Politburo member and a favored candidate for a spot on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee when he was pulled down dramatically in 2012. His radical Maoist movement in Chongqing, where he was Communist Party Chief, sparked a red fervor with his throwback policies and disturbed the whole of Chinese political and economic society. Some Politburo Standing Committee members went to Chongqing and endorsed Bo’s venture while others refused to talk about it and warned of impending disaster. Quickly, an unprecedented division among China’s top leaders materialized. Even today, in front of the court where Bo is being tried in Jinan, Shandong province, in Eastern China, both supporters and detractors gathered en masse. He has divided the nation. In the official charges, Bo is painted as a commonplace corrupted and discredited official. This is not a balanced view. The deeper impact Bo Xilai will have on China will continue for some time. To understand better Bo’s place in modern Chinese history, I spoke with Pin Ho, founder and CEO of the Mirror Media Group and co-author with Huang Wenguang of a new book about Bo Xilai called A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel.

Why didn’t Chinese leaders wrap up Bo Xilai’s trial in the last days of the administration of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, instead of handing it down to the new leader Xi Jinping?

In the history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it’s normally taken about one year from the time of arrest of a high-level Party official through to the start of his trial. For example, after the Mao era, the cases of Chen Xitong, Chen Liangyu, and Liu Zhijun each took one to two years. The time to trial was long because each of the officials charged had relationships with even higher-level leaders. They either were tightly interconnected or had colluded with each other. Similarly, Bo Xilai has had close connections with most of the members of the previous Politburo Standing Committee. News reports in official media showed that most of them supported Bo’s campaign “Praising the Red and Striking Down the Black” (Chàng Hóng Dǎ Hēi, 唱红打黑). Therefore, the authorities needed a long time to comb through all the connections to avoid implicating any important high-level leaders. Bo Xilai’s case (and the trouble around it) began to ferment in Jiang Zemin’s time. Xi Jinping wished it could be wrapped up before he took power but it was unrealistic because time was too tight.

Who are Bo's foes? And why do they oppose him?

So far, the only person among China’s top leaders who has opposed Bo Xilai directly and publicly is Wen Jiabao, the former Premier. Another opponent may be He Guoqiang, ranked Number 8 in the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee from 2007 to 2012, where he was in charge of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. He was promoted to Beijing from Chongqing, where many local officials in his clique were suppressed under Bo. For example, Wen Qiang, the former boss of the Chongqing police department, was a disciple of He Guoqiang. Wen was arrested and executed when Bo Xilai took power in Chongqing. He Guoqiang’s men were very dissatisfied and asked He to constrain Bo and the new Chief of Police, Wang Lijun. Bo’s case was triggered when Wang Lijun felt insecure that the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection had started investigating him in Northeast China where he’s from. Although Wen Jiabao presents himself as an advocate of freedom and democracy, he has a totally different side: according to The New York Times, his family grabbed tremendous and unfathomable economic benefits. This triggered many doubts and some people said that Wen Jiabao opposed Bo because he worried that Bo would do something against his family if he became one of the top leaders. So you can see that not all of the CCP’s leaders are unanimous in their opinion about whether or not to purge Bo. For their common interest, they have to sacrifice Bo, because, if they don’t, all of them may fall into the scandal.

Books

04.17.13

A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel

Pin Ho, Wenguang Huang
The downfall of Bo Xilai in China was more than a darkly thrilling mystery. It revealed a cataclysmic internal power struggle between Communist Party factions, one that reached all the way to China’s new president Xi Jinping.The scandalous story of the corruption of the Bo Xilai family—the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood; Bo’s secret lovers; the secret maneuverings of Bo’s supporters; the hasty trial and sentencing of Gu Kailai, Bo’s wife—was just the first rumble of a seismic power struggle that continues to rock the very foundation of China’s all-powerful Communist Party. By the time it is over, the machinations in Beijing and throughout the country that began with Bo’s fall could affect China’s economic development and disrupt the world’s political and economic order.—PublicAffairs

In the post-Mao era, Politburo members Zhao Ziyang, Chen Xitong, and Chen Liangyu were imprisoned. What is the difference between their cases and Bo’s?

I think Bo’s case could trigger the deepest split in the history of the CCP, be even more destructive than the case of Lin Biao, and could trigger the destruction of the Party. Although Lin Biao [the revolutionary marshal who was Mao’s hand-picked successor], the Gang of Four, and Zhao Ziyang all were higher-ranking leaders than Bo Xilai, Bo’s case has been an international incident from the very beginning. His right-hand man, Wang Lijun, fled to the U.S. Consulate [in Chengdu] to expose the murder of Neil Heywood, a British citizen. So, first, the CCP failed to control the whole case with its traditional methods. Second, there has never been a political struggle inside the CCP involving the people so widely and deeply. Let’s think about the cases of Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, the Gang of Four, Chen Xitong and others—once the CCP pulled them down and smeared them, few people opposed the official decision. If we include Zhao Ziyang’s step-down, the gunshots on Tiananmen Square silenced everyone. But now, although the CCP has smeared Bo for over a year, there are still many people publicly supporting him. The supporters’ percentage is very high. It’s also easy to imagine that his supporters within the CCP should be of similar number. Moreover, I don’t think Xi Jinping found a way to re-integrate the divisions. So, no matter what kind of result Bo’s trial produces, the division is just beginning, not ending.

Chen Yun once said that only the offspring of core communist revolutionaries like himself could guarantee the longevity of the communist regime. Now that Bo Xilai, son of Bo Yibo, has been pulled down, what role is left for “princelings” of their stature in China’s politics?

The reform over the last three decades totally changed their situation. Some of them fell behind the changes and became very stubborn and radical. They miss and glorify Mao’s era and constitute the backbone of support for Maoism today and for Bo Xilai’s campaigns in Chongqing. But generally, they are being marginalized. Another group of princelings are people like Liu Yuan, Liu Yazhou, and Bo Xilai. They are power-grabbers. But their promotions and current positions are due mainly to their parents’ blessings instead of to their personal abilities. And they also thwart and block the careers of many other officials of ordinary background. Therefore, they are arrogant within the CCP but they also are isolated. A third group of princelings is relatively young. They are seizing huge economic benefits. It is this group of people who have caused China’s inequality and become the source of the people’s anger. So, as long as the princelings exist, it is impossible to realize social stability as well as political and economic fairness. As a whole, they are what slows China’s progress, a source of damage and conflict, and a bane to society.

Bo Xilai and Xi Jinping both suffered terribly during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Bo’s mother committed suicide and Xi's father was jailed for sixteen years. Once in power, why did both men imitate Mao?

The plot of any gangster film tells us that when the boss of the gang is killed his son rarely says, "OK, let’s stop gangbanging. Let’s be legal.” The reason is very easy to understand: only Mao’s tricks can suppress people they dislike and get rid of people who dare to challenge their guaranteed supreme power. Only by [mimicking Mao’s maneuvers] can they stabilize their regime, which equals their personal interest and authority.

Personally, how would you assess Bo Xilai?

He should face much more severe charges than those already leveled by the CCP. But why has Bo won so much support and sympathy? Because, apart from his crime, Bo’s charms and abilities are much greater than those of most CCP officials across the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao administrations. The people who pulled him down may be even more despicable and incompetent than he. If he were born in a democratic regime, he might have been a good leader. Sadly, he was born in a system ruled by the CCP. But he can’t complain because his family is a co-founder of and participant in the unfair system that finally devoured him.

If Bo Xilai was not toppled last year but promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee, would he have become another Mao Zedong?

It’s hard to predict whether or not he could challenge Xi Jinping’s power. But he definitely would make Chinese politics more interesting and more dramatic. His radical policies in Chongqing may not show his true colors. Like Mao, politicians will do anything that helps them reach their goals.

What will be the result of the ongoing trial?

There won’t be more than two kinds of results. A severe punishment will mean Bo did not compromise. In this case, he will win even firmer support from the Maoists and will become the flag bearer of the left-wing of the CCP’s political spectrum. If he compromised—or if Xi shows him mercy—Bo may get a lighter sentence, like imprisonment between fifteen and twenty years. If this is the case, Bo’s opponents will be unconvinced and Xi will be regarded as a weak leader. So, this is the paradox and the reason that this trial cannot deliver a fair and convincing sentence. It’s just a part of a political struggle. Chinese society will continue to be split.