China continues to attract international attention mostly for the right reasons, not least, the phenomenal growth of the country’s economy which has seen Beijing’s aggressive excursion into ambitious global economic diplomacy initiatives that has witnessed a combination of billions of dollars in development projects and investments – primarily in forestry, minerals, oil and gas – in regions as far apart as Africa and the Caribbean. In China itself, the world has witnessed the emergence of a new millionaire elite which, with its new-found appetite for western goods, has become the contemporary market of choice for western manufacturers.
While China is ranked as the second largest economy behind the United States and while its economic relations with the rest of the world have long been of an openly capitalist character, the country is still ruled by a Communist Party which conveniently overlooks the paradox between an economy that has brought wealth and opulence to millions whilst still leaving the vast majority in poverty and a political system that remains communist, closed, conservative and – when the circumstances do dictate – utterly ruthless.
The paradox of contemporary China was exposed recently in the swift disappearance from the political radar of Bo Xilai, up until recently a communist party high-flier reportedly with sufficient ambition and ability to get to the very top of China’s political totem pole.
Bo, according to China watchers, was probably the most talented politician of his generation. In fact, there are those who felt that had Bo been a western political figure he might even have survived his wife Gu Kailai’s misdeeds since his trial provided no real evidence that connected him to her alleged involvement in the murder of a British business partner, Neil Heywood.
But that is not the manner in which the Chinese Communist Party works and it seems that once his wife’s indiscretions had become public knowledge, that alone provided excuse (rather than reason) for the former member of both the Central Committee and the Politburo of the Communist Party (CPC) to have his feet held to the fire. Indeed, analysts of the proceedings at the Bo trial including his own boisterous insistence of his innocence on charges that included bribe-taking, contend that the whole affair amounted to a political rather than a legal spectacle.
That is plausible primarily for two reasons. First, the disgracing and jailing of prominent officials has long been one of the CPC’s customary mechanisms for settling political scores. The late Chinese Leader Deng Xiao Ping is an example – one of the few – of a high-ranking Chinese official who was reformed after being disgraced.
The second reason why Bo’s trial was significant may have had to do with his personal popularity, a circumstance that would not have stood him in good stead amongst his fellow aspirants for even more power in the CPC.
Bo’s talents, we are told, included a capacity to ‘ground’ with ordinary Chinese. That would have made him popular among ordinary Chinese. On the other hand, his role as communist party chief of Chongqing, in cleaning up rampant crime and reasserting the authority of the Party, is said to have gotten him as many enemies among crooked party officials as amongst Chinese mobsters in the criminal underworld.
Bo’s fall from grace – from which, unlike Deng, he is probably unlikely to recover – removes a powerful figure in the eternal jockeying for power that characterises the CPC. Disgrace, invariably, is permanent and now that his trial is done and dusted any short-term rehabilitation would add a disruptive – perhaps even counterproductive – dimension to the political process inside the CPC. Bo’s own father, Bo Yibo, was once a Chinese military official and senior communist party functionary. He too fell from grace during the 1960’s though the available evidence suggests that he was allowed a political comeback of sorts. Accounts of Bo Yibo’s political career suggest that, like his son, his own fall from grace was a function of political jockeying inside the CPC.
Bo would have had adversaries and rivals within the CPC and it is not implausible that they may have helped orchestrate the ‘no leniency’ din that arose early in his trial despite what it seemed, was no serious evidence of his involvement in the misdeeds of which he was accused. His fall from grace was apparently orchestrated with clinical efficiency.
Speculation repeated in a recent BBC analysis of the Bo trial to the effect that he might have been made Head of one of two powerful Party institutions, the National People’s Congress, or of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, would have created even greater measures of anxiety amongst Bo’s adversaries since either post would have provided him with a power base from which to mobilize public and political opinion. Bo, it seemed, was the classical sacrificial lamb that pops up in Chinese politics from time to time. As Chinese native and University of Iowa political science professor Weng Fangtang put it, Bo “would have had a chance to become China’s top leader, if China had direct elections. But he shows too much personality and charisma in the post-Mao political culture that emphasizes collective leadership.” Taken in the context of China’s political culture that emphasis on self – or as Professor Weng put it on “personality and charisma” would have provided as much reason as any legal infraction for Bo Xilai’s political downfall.