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Bo Xilai and the Politics of Chinese Succession

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on CNN’s website on March 28, 2012. It can be found here. It is reprinted here with the authors’ permission.

By Neil K. Shenai & Bernard Geoxavier

On March 15, the Chinese Communist Party announced the removal of Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai, a popular ‘Princeling’ leader, famous for his anti-corruption efforts and dogged support of Maoism. Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Bo is only the third Party Chief to be fired mid-term, and his dismissal serves as one of the highlights of an eventful month for the Chinese Communist Party.

Since Bo’s removal, Chinese social media exploded in speculation about the mysterious death of a young Ferrari driver in Beijing, rumored to be Bo Xilai’s son, and even claimed that Bo sympathizers in the Politburo unsuccessfully tried to stage a coup in retaliation to Bo’s removal.

In our last article, we outlined the importance of China’s leadership succession, arguing that underneath the stable veneer of China’s one-Party rule lies a competitive political struggle to control the heart of the Chinese state. In this article, we explain why the Chinese Communist Party removed Bo Xilai and discuss what these events might tell us about the incoming Party Chairman Xi Jinping.

Why the Communist Party fired Bo Xilai

The Communist Party chose to remove Bo Xilai as Chongqing Party chief to sideline a national distraction and expunge one of the Party’s biggest political liabilities. Prior to Bo’s firing, his police chief and confidant, Wang Lijun, unsuccessfully tried to escape to the United States consulate in Chengdu, fleeing charges relating to corruption and harvesting human organs, among other counts.

Only after the United States denied Wang Lijun asylum did it became clear that Bo’s anticorruption campaigns in Chongqing often relied on a host of grislyauthoritarian tactics led by Wang Lijun, including torturing political rivals, appropriating private property in the name of the state, and censuring fellow Party officials for their ostensible lack of ideological rectitude.

The day before Bo Xilai’s dismissal, Wen Jiabao subtly condemned Bo’s heavy-handed approach, claiming that these types of coercive tactics could lead China down a dangerous road of paranoia and political upheaval, much like that of the Cultural Revolution. China’s leaders’ willingness to sack such a prominent member of their own ranks shows their implicit fear of Maoist-style ideological campaigns.

From this perspective, Bo’s firing can be seen as Chinese leadership’s repudiation of Bo’s unique brand of ‘Chongqing School’ revivalism. In all likelihood, key players such as Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping recognize that charismatic leaders like Bo can capitalize on the legitimate desires of the Chinese people – like the goal of anti-corruption – to sow paranoia, encourage politically motivated purges, and aggrandize themselves to feed their own cult of personality and expand their power.

The message is clear: Ideological battles might have turned the Communist Party into the omnipresent force that it is in China today, but these types of old-school conflicts could derail the awesome progress of the Chinese economy over the past thirty years and sink Chinese international aspirations. By overstepping his ideological bounds, Bo set the stage for his own dismissal.

Xi Jinping: Laying low to rise above

In all of the confusion that took place over the last month, many China observers have wondered where Xi Jinping went. The de facto incoming General Secretary of the Communist Party has had a quiet month after returning from his trip to America, which many in China saw as the international legitimization of China’s sixth generation of Party leaders. Even the Global Times, one of China’s more hawkish and nationalist news outlets, openly called for clarity in the face of allegations of party infighting, denigrating the tepid response from the Party about China’s coup rumors.

Despite this criticism, staying quiet may constitute a coherent strategy on behalf of Xi Jinping. In facing these rumors, Chinese leadership encountered the timeless paradox of the strong: To acknowledge rumors is to give them (and their proponents) political credibility; to ignore the rumors creates the space necessary for these rumors to grow and take on a life of their own.

By sacking Bo Xilai and staying reticent about coup rumors, Xi Jinping and his fellow leaders have attempted to triage between both of these competing goals. On one hand, sacking Bo is an implicit acknowledgment of the corrosive effect of Bo’s policies on the Chinese body politic. On the other hand, by ignoring the associated coup rumors that went along with Bo’s firing, Party bosses have been able to give Chinese citizens the impression of normalcy, delegitimizing the coup rumors by not responding to them.

Today, there are no tanks on the streets and no restrictions on how average Chinese citizens can go about their lives. Projecting this image of stability and continuity in the face of challenges to their own power is a coherent strategy employed by Xi Jinping to create distance from himself and the fallout associated with Bo Xilai’s firing.

As the last month has shown, China is far from a unified monolith, seamlessly handing power from one generation to the next. Unlike elections in the West, where every gaffe and conflict among candidates dominates the news cycle, China’s succession is just as fiercely contested but takes place outside the view of the public eye.

The eruption of the Bo Xilai scandal serves as a stark reminder that just as Western leaders fear China’s political regression to Maoism, Party elites also feel threatened by the stark historical memory of the Cultural Revolution.

Further, while many in the West are content to let their imaginations run wild about purported coups and high drama in Beijing, the Party likely realizes that a show of normalcy and strength will give it the space it needs to usher in the 6th generation cadres and help China navigate this tumultuous period of domestic politics.

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