As the most high profile ouster in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since 1989, the departure of Bo Xilai, a high-level Party official, illustrates two matters. First, it demonstrates that the consensus of collective leadership and demand for Party unity remains very strong. But second, it reflects the increasing strain on the Chinese political system and casts doubt on its capacity for change.
A bit of background. After 1978, the CCP embarked on a political strategy to consolidate its hold on power that was based on collective leadership. This choice was informed foremost by the necessity to prevent the rise of another Mao-like autocrat; but a second key principle insisted on keeping leadership divisions out of public view. This policy followed the Tiananmen incidents of 1989, in which protesters managed to exploit the division between the reformist side of Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang, and the leftists, led by Premier Li Peng.
Underpinning Party consensus is an elaborate maze of structures and organizations, creating different regional, institutional and professional power bases, the top levels of which create a selectorate which negotiates key appointments at central Party and government levels. This maze, in turn, is kept in check by a system of patronage pervading throughout, extracting wealth from the Chinese economy and causing endemic corruption. In order to maintain leadership unity, the Party prefers careful bureaucrats with a history of Party service and loyalty, who make few enemies during their rise to the top.
This is where Bo Xilai fell short. Although his father, Bo Yibo, was a close associate of Deng Xiaoping, Bo Xilai worked his way up in the provincial city of Dalian, eventually becoming mayor and party chief. But even then, worries cropped up about his populist streak, delaying further promotions to the provincial and central levels. After a brief spell as Minister of Commerce, he finally became Party chief in the large city of Chongqing. Bo became very popular after a harsh anti-crime crackdown in a city notorious for powerful organized crime syndicates.
He further consolidated his popularity by embarking on ambitious social projects, including housing and health care, and by launching a ‘Red Culture’ campaign, where he tried to reinvigorate traditional Communist virtues. Ahead of a shakeup scheduled for later this year, he was widely considered to be the frontrunner for a seat on the Standing Committee, the nine-person body at the top of the Party hierarchy.
There is no chance of that now, and for numerous reasons – all having to do with Party politics (and worry). Although Bo enjoyed strong popular support, his power base within the Party itself was relatively weak. He had not grown out of a large Party organization, such as Hu Jintao (who came out of the Communist Youth League), or one of the leading factions, such as the Shanghai or Qinghua cliques. While he is sometimes described as a member of the ‘Princeling Party’, a group of children of high-ranking cadres, there are few shared interests between the members of this group, and they certainly do not act as a cohesive body.
Moreover, he did not command loyalties among the important central commissions of the Party. On the contrary, his flamboyance and arrogance caused worry and enmity from other officials. In particular, his flaunting of his crime-fighting successes was seen as a snub to his two predecessors in Chongqing, He Guoqiang and Wang Yang. Both are powerful. The former now runs the Party commission in charge of internal enforcement, while the latter is Party chief in the economic powerhouse of Guangdong.
Indeed, the swiftness and poise with which Bo was put out to pasture indicates that there was a broad top-level consensus against him. Although the different factions within the Party are strongly divided over policy, they agree on the ultimate objective of keeping the CCP in power. By openly garnering popular support, Bo challenged that consensus.
What does this mean? While some commentators have seen his fall as the victory of one faction—the liberalizers over the New Left—I reckon it is more likely a victory of the current mode of governance over one driven by popular support.
In the long term, though, this tension remains. The care with which Bo’s ouster was handled, and the character assassination of him now taking place in the Chinese press indicates Bo’s popularity has hit home with the CCP leadership, underscoring the increasing tensions between politics and society.
The CCP remains worried. While China’s economic growth has been extraordinary, so has the cost. Pollution, inequality, land grabs, corruption and privilege create increasing discontent and cynicism within the population; while waste, inefficiency and political interference in the economy have an increasing negative impact on economic growth. As export markets are faltering, domestic consumption—and therefore the empowerment of the Chinese private sector—must step up to compensate. This puts a strain on the patronage model.
With or without Bo, these frustrations and tensions will need to be resolved.
Rogier Creemers is a post-doctoral research officer at the Programme for Comparative Media Law and Policy at Oxford. His expertise is Chinese media law.