The Great Irony of Bo Xilai's Downfall

The disgraced politician fell victim to a Maoist-style “rectification campaign”—just like the one he had championed in office.
Bo Xilai (foreground) was sentenced to life in prison yesterday for corruption and abuse of power. (Reuters)

When President Xi Jinping was preparing the ground for the trial and conviction of his princeling rival, Bo Xilai, sentenced to life in prison yesterday, he called China’s entire leadership together to launch a “rectification campaign.”  Xi promised to save degenerate cadres and the Party itself by “vigorously” mobilizing the political machinery in a process of criticism, self-criticism and self-purification. He dubbed it the “Party Mass Line Education and Practice Movement,” to be overseen by a specially-convened small leadership group of the same name. The aim was to “cure the illness and save the patient,” said Xi, adding that the “life and death” of the Party was at stake.

The language, aims and structure of Xi’s ongoing rectification campaign are directly borrowed from Chairman Mao Zedong’s efforts to instill discipline and consolidate personal power at Yan’an, then the Communist Party base, in the early 1940s. Mao’s success hinged on having tight personal control of the internal security and propaganda apparatus, giving him the capacity to create an atmosphere of fear and panic and forcefully extract confessions.  He used “special case groups” to root out and intimidate the patronage networks of perceived rivals until his power was unchallengeable.

These, ironically, were the techniques that Bo Xilai revived to transform the Communist Party in Chongqing and build a formidable personal power base there, striking terror inside the Party in ways that are still not widely understood. Now, Xi is applying the same underlying political logic to revitalize and impose his will over the world’s largest and most powerful political party, with some important innovations. And he is doing it by purging Bo.

It is easy to forget, amid the sordid hypocrisy exposed by his fall, that Bo Xilai was a pragmatic leader: He had identified a problem and wanted to get things done. Bo’s ascendance occurred at a time when it was getting harder to restrain the predatory instincts of the bureaucracy and harder still to explain why the Chinese Communist Party, of all political movements, had created one of the least egalitarian societies in Asia. In Bo’s judgment, desperate times demanded desperate measures. He offered himself as the surgeon to remove the Party’s cancerous tumors and fetid organs. “Without help, the disease will become fatal,” he said in December 2009, borrowing the metaphors of bodily disease that Mao used to commence his own rectification campaign in 1942.

Bo mapped the city’s channels of patronage and nodes of political and financial power, planted key people, and uprooted the existing networks of propaganda and coercion which he did not personally control. His key target was the old Chongqing police chief, Wen Qiang, who, like most established police chiefs in China, enjoyed power well beyond his official portfolio. Wen’s patrons included one of Bo’s powerful predecessors, who had been promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee, and his protégés were stacked throughout the municipal political-legal establishment. Wen controlled many of the city’s bathhouses, for example, where business was often done. In other words, at the time of Bo’s arrival Chongqing was an ordinary mainland city where a new leader lacking deep local patronage ties had little hope of getting anything done—unless he found a way to purge the old regime and make it his own.

Bo’s first major political move was to appoint his own man, Wang Lijun, to act as his scalpel in the rectification operation. Right away, he appointed Wang as Wen Qiang’s deputy police chief, providing Wang with an opportunity to collect intelligence and map Wen’s patronage ties. In March 2009, Bo shifted Wen Qiang sideways, appointing him Minister of Justice, while promoting Wang Lijun to take his place. Wang got to work. He arrested Wen’s key police department deputies and protégés, one of whom reportedly died of a heart attack in custody. Another reportedly died by smashing his head against a wall. Wen’s sister-in-law, entwined in Chongqing’s organized crime, was dubbed the “Godmother of the Underworld” and sentenced to 18 years in prison. Wen’s wife was shown pictures of her husband with an underage prostitute—after which she reportedly led police to the family millions, buried under a goldfish pond.  

With potential critics silenced (including the head of Chongqing TV, who was concerned that viewers were boycotting Bo’s leftist “red” programming), the completion of Bo’s ascendancy was announced with a text message published on the front page of the next day’s Chongqing Daily: “Wen Qiang Is Dead, The People Rejoice, Chongqing is at Peace.”

Bo and his scalpel, Wang Lijun, also sliced through the city’s commercial precincts. Police were given quotas of “black society” members to detain in each district, just like the “bad class elements” in Chairman Mao’s day. Alleged gangsters testified against wealthy entrepreneurs who, in turn, were testifying against higher political targets. “Basically, the 20 richest guys in Chongqing, [Bo] sent them all to jail and confiscated all their assets,” said Wang Boming, publisher of Caijing Magazine, in an interview.

Bo’s methods were so brutal and out of touch with the values of China’s increasingly sophisticated and pluralistic society, that they galvanized lawyers, editors, historians and other intellectuals to fight to protect their interests and restrain him.

The system of justice, based mostly on lies extracted by torture, proved to be a phenomenally powerful tool for political control. Within Chongqing, Bo became popular for articulating social concerns and cleaning up the streets. Nationally, he became the hero of China’s growing neo-Maoist and New Left movements. Ambitious scholars, entrepreneurs, officials, generals and international statesmen were drawn into his orbit. By the new year of 2012, he seemed to be on the cusp of breaking into the top leadership sanctum: the Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s top governing body.

John Garnaut is the author of The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo and a former China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

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