In the aftermath of Bo Xilai’s fall

Tags: Op-ed
In the aftermath of Bo Xilai’s fall
AP
LOST CAUSE: In this file photo taken on August 22 and released by the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court, Bo Xilai (C) stands on trial at the court in eastern China’s Shandong province
A few years ago, Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai were the closest China had to the Kennedys. They were a glamour couple amongst the usually dull top cadres of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Both hail from the ‘red aristocracy’. Bo Xilai, former party chief of the mega-city Chongqing and high-flying member of the party’s Politburo, is the son of Bo Yibo, one of the revolutionary ‘immortals’, and Gu Kailai, an ambitious and well-connected lawyer, is the daughter of a general of the People’s Liberation Army.

Today, nothing of this glamour is left. Last month, Bo Xilai was put on trial and he is facing a tough sentence for corruption and abuse of power. Earlier, his wife had been sentenced to a suspended death sentence for the murder of a British businessman. Of course, trials of high party and government officials are not open to the public. Usually people are just informed that someone has been arrested for graft and later, on a short press communiqué, will announce the sentence. However, in the case of Gu Kailai and, particularly that of Bo Xilai, the Chinese public got an unusual wealth of information. Obviously the script of Bo Xilai’s trial was intended to humiliate the once powerful party boss, showing him as a man who couldn’t even control his wife and abused his high position for petty family affairs.

The downfall of Bo Xilai dates back to the 18th National Party Congress that took place in November 2012. This Congress had approved the change of China’s leadership from the fourth to the fifth generation. It installed Xi Jinping as the new party Secretary General and appointed a new central committee which chose a new Politburo, of which, ominously, Bo Xilai was not part. In spring 2013, after the National People’s Congress had filled the top positions in the state and had appointed Xi Jinping as the nation’s new president and Li Keqiang as its new prime minister, Bo Xilai was arrested. Usually in such cases, the trial follows swiftly. However, it took half a year until Bo Xilai finally faced the tribunal.

One does not have to be an insider of Chinese politics to see this inordinate delay of Bo Xilai’s trial as an indication that scores are being settled within the Communist Party. While apparatchiks that have fallen by the wayside are normally disposed of without much publicity, Bo Xilai seems to have had substantial backing that made it necessary to wrap up a tight case to get rid of him once and for all. The verdict is still not known, but it is certain that there will be no chance for the 65-year old to make a comeback.

When he was party chief in Chongqing, Bo Xilai gained popularity and notoriety by going after the mafia and influential businessmen as well as by reviving old Maoist values. Bearing in mind the cancerous growth of corruption in China and the escalating wealth gap with many Chinese living in modest circumstances, the policy cocktail of Bo Xilai carried quite some appeal both amongst high-ups in the CPC and amongst the general public. As Bo Xilai has undoubtedly a well-tested charisma, fear must have gripped many in the upper echelons of party and state that there could be a return to more turbulent and dangerous times in the offing. Remembering the devastation brought over the country by the so-called ‘cultural revolution’, the party leadership was clearly afraid of a new personality cult.

With the completion of the trial, it is obvious that Bo Xilai is finished. Now it seems that it is the turn of some of his key supporters to face prosecution. Up till now, the change of leadership in party and state seems to have been a smooth process. Obviously, in the background, the former party leader and president of the People’s Republic, Jiang Zemin, still plays an important role as kingmaker, while Hu Jintao, who relinquished his various offices during winter/spring 2012/13 has faded into the background. Almost one year into his job as CPC-boss, Xi Jinping now feels strong enough to clear the deck.

Xi has made it clear that he sees corruption as a cancer that is threatening the very survival of the system. A new wind of austerity is blowing through the corridors of power. Only a few days ago, it was announced that Jiang Jemin, the chief regulator of state-owned companies has been put under investigation for corruption. This is, up till now, the highest official to face prosecution under the rule of Xi Jinping. The rumour mill in the capital has it that soon an even higher placed person might be targeted; Zhou Yongkang, member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo until last year and in charge of public security is the mentor of Jiang Jemin. But even more importantly, he was known as a backer of Bo Xilai. With Bo out of the way, the field is now open to go after other officials who might have nursed rival ambitions to those now in power.

(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)

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