Bo Xilai airbrushed from family album
By Muhammad Cohen
HONG KONG - The Bo Xilai scandal cast a huge shadow over China's 18th Communist Party Conference in November. But now that the leadership transition has moved to its second and final phase of generational change to hand power to Xi Jinping as president, Bo and the biggest party scandal ever acknowledged by Chinese authorities have been purged from the scene.
On the domestic and international stages, it's best for the new bosses in Beijing to make the Bo Xilai matter to disappear. Xi and friends have found help for that from an unlikely source.
Back in November, in the wake of Bo's expulsion from the party and parliament, China's leadership needed to demonstrate it took seriously
the offenses of the princeling party chief of Chongqing, a frontrunner for a top spot in the new Politburo leadership until the scandal broke a year ago. Bo allegedly was involved in murder, multimillion dollar graft, and wide-ranging abuses of power. The party conference responded with serious sounding pledges to fight corruption.
Four months later, there's no point in revisiting the Bo case. That's especially true since Bo has refused to follow the approved script. Bo's wife Gu Kailai and his Chongqing Public Security Bureau chief Wang Lijun came clean about their transgressions to the extent desired by the party in speedy trials, received relatively leniently sentences and swiftly exited the scene.
No Bo zone
Bo has reportedly shown the same arrogance as a prisoner that he displayed in office. He's challenged his interrogators' authority, grown a beard down to his chest as part of a shaving strike, and been force-fed twice following hunger strikes. Bo's family denies the hunger strikes, saying he's just been sick.
Whatever the case, it's clear that Bo isn't prepared to go quietly into the night. So the party needs to sweep him under the rug. On the international stage, Stanford University pop historian Francis Fukuyama has laid out a scenario for that.
Fukuyama told the BBC's Newsnight program that China's rulers purged Bo, not because he was a extraordinarily corrupt, but because he was a flamboyant figure who posed a threat to the Communist Party's collective leadership group that relies on consensus building. Since that was just a seven second sound bite from Fukuyama on a TV news show that drew fire for its selective reporting last year, those words may not have fully and fairly expressed his views.
So here's an excerpt from a piece he wrote about Bo last May, headlined China's "Bad Emperor" Problem. Fukuyama explains that China, unlike other authoritarian regimes, has established a leadership succession process. He then writes:
This is why, then, the recently purged Bo Xilai was such a threat to the system:Â using his base in Chongqing, he used the media effectively to build his own charismatic authority, which was strong already given his status as a Princeling or son of a revolutionary hero; he was ruthless in the use of state power to go after not just criminals and corrupt officials but businessmen and rivals who had accumulated too much power and wealth; and he revived Mao-era mobilization techniques like the singing of revolutionary songs at mass rallies.Â Unlike his gray compatriots, he could potentially dominate the leadership with an independent power base if he were promoted to the Standing Committee. It therefore makes sense that Hu Jintao and the existing leadership should use the scandal of a coverup and murder to eliminate him from consideration and remove the Bad Emperor threat.
In other words, as he said on Newsnight, Fukuyama believes that Bo was ousted because he threatened to make himself bigger than the system. Therefore he posed a political threat to his colleagues and had to be controlled. Bo's scandalous behavior provided a convenient pretext for his ouster.
Fukuyama's analysis contains several crunchy nuggets of truth, assertions that sound correct without ever quite rising to the level of veracity. It builds on the Asian collectivist social adage that the nail sticking up gets hammered down. Bo's penchant for headlines and Mao Zedong symbolism undoubtedly won him enemies as well as admirers. He was clearly a marked man. But it was the murder of British citizen Neil Heywood by Bo's wife and Bo's role in its coverup that was the cause of his ouster, not a pretext for his purge on political grounds.
Fukuyama's defense of Bo recalls the case of US president Richard Nixon, another iconoclastic and divisive politician. When Nixon became embroiled in the Watergate scandal, many observers said he'd just gotten caught doing what all politicians did. Nixon himself famously declared at a White House press conference, "I am not a crook."
But in fact, Nixon was a crook, who instigated and condoned an array of illegal activities, from the botched bugging of the opposition Democratic Party offices at the Watergate complex to accumulating illegal campaign contributions to a "dirty tricks" campaign against rivals to directing law enforcement officials to conceal the wrongdoing.
Similarly, Bo may have done what others did, but he also crossed many lines that others didn't. To recap some key facts in the scandal, Bo's wife Gu and Heywood had a falling out over the millions in bribes the family had amassed and concealed with Heywood's assistance. Heywood threatened to expose them, leading Gu to hatch a plot to poison him. She enlisted police chief Wang to help her commit and cover up Heywood's murder, carried out by Gu's bodyguard in November 2011.
In late January last year, Wang told Bo about the murder plot, and Bo slapped him. Days later, Bo removed Wang from his police post. Wang fled to the US consulate in Chengdu, bringing evidence about the Heywood murder and Bo's other wrongdoing. After a tense overnight stay with the consulate surrounded by Chinese police, Wang left and was arrested by Chinese authorities who began their own investigation into Bo's activities. On March 15, Bo was ousted from his Chongqing post and taken into custody by investigators. He hasn't been seen in public since.
It ain't Mao, babe
If Wang hadn't blown the whistle, there's little doubt that Bo would have won a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee, making him one of small circle that really rules China. Bo's outsized personality and ambition and penchant for Cultural Revolution political anthems wouldn't have prevented the promotion. What got in the way was Bo's involvement in a murder that opened a Pandora's box of further wrongdoing, documented by Wang for local and foreign authorities, that couldn't be ignored.
It's naive to think, as Fukuyama professes to, that Bo's contemporaries in China's top leadership aren't all ambitious people with big egos or that they don't all have loyal power bases within the party elites. They may express their ambition behind closed doors and lack Bo's flair for grand public gestures, but they'd all likely relish a chance to become Fukuyama's Bad Emperor.
China's Communist Party defends itself against their ambition by offering the leadership enough rewards and privileges to give them stakes in perpetuating the system. The Party convinces them they're better off toeing the line rather than risking it all by rocking the boat.
Raking it in
Bo isn't the only leader to push the limits. Western media has reported that the extended family of outgoing premier Wen Jiabao has wealth in excess of US$2.7 billion and incoming president Xi Jinping's relatives have amassed assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars while he's been warming up in the bullpen. Imagine what they can do when Xi's on the top of the hill with the ball.
So Bo's case fits the Nixon apologists' defense. But "he just did what everyone else does" is certainly not a story the party wants to tell. Moreover, Bo's princeling pedigree has plenty of troublesome parallels with Xi's background. So it's better to opt for no story at all and keep Bo hidden offstage. Fortunately for the leadership, China is still the kind of society where the authorities can keep its political dirty laundry under the bed. After 22 years of ignoring the Tiananmen Square massacre, covering up the Bo scandal is a piece of cake.
China's ability to conceal the truth also highlights the folly of Fukuyama's speculation. Without direct word from a reliable insider, it's impossible to know what's really going on within the inner sanctum of the leadership of China's Communist Party. Under these difficult conditions, throwing out guesses while struggling to peer through the fog of China's Communist Party, it gets easy to miss what's obvious.
Muhammad Cohen told America's story to the world as a US diplomat and is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie. Find his blog, online archive and more at www.MuhammadCohen.com, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen
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