It could have been Mao at Yan’an, the Shaanxi city where the Communists had retreated after the Long March, 75 years before.
Like Bo, Mao too had a scalpel: his internal intelligence chief, Kang Sheng. Kang’s torture-based extraction of false confessions and testimony was instrumental in Mao’s consolidation of power at Yan’an, but also triggered a substantial internal backlash. Mao was forced to sideline Kang Sheng before bringing him back to prominence in the 1960s, where he resumed the work of rooting out the patronage networks of Mao’s perceived and potential rivals. One of Kang’s victims was Xi Jinping’s father, a vice premier, detained in 1962 and held in limbo for 16 years. Another was Bo Xilai’s father, also a vice-premier, whom Kang arrested at the height of the Cultural Revolution of 1966. Both men were jailed and tortured, and a member of each family was “persecuted to death.”
Almost a half-century later, Bo applied the Maoist strategies of purge and rectification, operating beneath the barest of judicial facades. But by then, China had changed in ways that meant the old torture-based confession methods didn’t work as well anymore.
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 only weapon they had was the truth, in and outside the courtroom, and the patience to let events take their course—an approach whose ultimate success relied on China’s information revolution and an increasingly engaged public—a public unwilling to return to the methods of the Cultural Revolution.
Eventually, the pressure forced open cracks in the political elite. Bo’s courtroom persecutions of his rivals were so perverse and so public—despite his prodigious propaganda efforts—that enemies sharpened their hatchets and allies found it harder to defend him. Indirectly, as I argue in my book The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo, this is what brought Bo crashing down.
By the time of publication, Bo Xilai is likely to have been convicted of misdeeds that are marginal to the political reasons that brought his downfall, an event that followed the interrogation of dozens of associates, with each detainee testifying against the one above. But the national crisis of injustice and inequality that Bo articulated has only become more pressing.
As he awaits a verdict, it must amuse Bo to see Xi using the Maoist language of life-and-death struggle and bodily decay. Public revolt at “vile” cases threatened to “doom the party and the state,” said the Chinese president when he took the stage in November last year, six weeks after the Politburo pre-announced Bo’s guilt. “There must first be decay for maggots to set in.”
Immediately before Bo’s trial, the Xi administration announced the promotion of a new deputy police chief, Fu Zhenghua, whose bold assaults on power had once earned him comparisons with Bo’s old police chief, Wang Lijun. Fu quickly made news with high profile arrests of alleged rumor-mongers on the Internet.
Straight after Bo’s trial, the South China Morning Post and The New York Times reported previously-suppressed court evidence that linked Bo’s abuse of power to Zhou Yongkang, China’s bulldog-headed former security czar. The news was followed by the detention of the recently-removed chief and remaining top executives at PetroChina, arguably the most powerful of all Chinese state-owned companies. Most tantalizing, the SCMP reported a link between Bo’s corruption and the former Chinese president who refuses to actually retire: Jiang Zemin.
Xi’s current strategy of manipulating the coercive apparatus to purge enemies and use their confessions to taint and intimidate rivals isn’t new in China: It comes directly from Bo’s Chongqing and Mao’s Yan’an. Xi’s propaganda apparatus is brandishing “swords” to enforce discipline across the contested spaces of the Internet, and his security apparatus has renewed the previous administration’s attack on lawyers and constitutionalism. The president’s personal willingness to extend the Bo investigation to the doorstep of some of the most powerful patrons in the country shows that the winner-takes-all logic remains firmly in place. For all Xi’s talk of voluntary self-correction—“seeing oneself in the mirror, correcting hats and clothes”—his program hinges on the credibility of his promise to “investigate and prosecute” cadres who cannot be saved. For Xi, the case of Bo Xilai is a weapon which is central to his political project.
Even still, the fact that Bo was given probably the most transparent trial in the history of the People’s Republic shows the rules are continuing to evolve. Bo’s revolutionary prestige, his clan’s ties with other ruling families, and his cult-like status among neo-Maoist sections of the Party encouraged (or possibly forced) President Xi to afford him the dignity of contesting the accusations in a relatively open fashion.
The rise of Bo Xilai showed that extreme measures are often necessary to get anything done in an aging one-party system. His demise, however, shows that Maoist political methods don’t sit easily with a modern economy, an increasingly fragmented political elite, and a society that is empowered by prosperity and informed by new networks of information. Several of Xi’s supporters within the elite say it is too early to rule out the possibility that the president wants to leave China with something closer to a credible legal system than the one he inherited. Many say he is blasting a path through webs of patronage and a hopelessly self-interested political-bureaucracy to enable urgent economic reforms.
But whatever Xi’s plans, it is ironic, and potentially dangerous, that he first has to borrow from Bo’s playbook in order to give himself a chance.
A version of this article appears in the East Asia Forum.