The Bigger Issues Behind China's Bo Xilai Scandal: Mao, Law, and the Web

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There's more at stake here for China's political future than the fate of this one neo-Maoist.

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Bo Xilai Reuters

After a month of rumors and speculation, former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai has been ousted--or more accurately suspended--from all his formal political positions, including as member of the Politburo. Behind the scenes of Bo's political downfall are apparently numerous issues regarding "violations of Party discipline," the most dramatic and terrible of which appears to be a link between his wife and the death of British citizen Neil Heywood. The death of Heywood--who had personal and professional ties to Bo's family--in mid-November 2011, was originally ascribed to natural causes. In the aftermath of Chongqing Vice-Mayor and Police Chief Wang Lijun's flight to the U.S. consulate in nearby Chengdu, however, it became apparent that there was more to the story, and now Bo's wife Gu Kailai is being investigated for her potential role in the murder.

While these events are political theater of the highest order, there are a number of larger issues at stake concerning China's political future:

  • The need to reassess Mao Zedong: There has never been a thorough accounting by the Chinese Communist Party of the trauma inflicted on the Chinese people by Mao Zedong, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. Bo Xilai brought back memories of Mao not only in his campaign-style leadership and red songs but also in his political certitude and defiance of established norms of governance. Bo's anti-corruption campaign was wildly popular but ignored any procedures for detention and trial. The political death of Bo is a serious political blow for the neo-leftists, who raise the banner of Mao and wreak havoc for any real political reform agenda. However, the Party needs a full accounting of the Maoist period, charismatic leadership, and the cult of personality to truly move forward.
  •  The need for transparency, official accountability, and the rule of law: We still don't know whether any of this political scandal would have come to light had Wang Lijun not spilled his guts to officials in the U.S. consulate or retired senior leaders such as Qiao Shi (reportedly)not played puppet master. Nonetheless, the case of Bo represents a marked improvement from traditional Chinese politics by bringing transparency, accountability, and perhaps even the rule of law into the political process. Of course the Party is already trying to use its handling of the scandal as an example of its respect for the "sanctity and authority of law." In doing so, however, the Party raises the expectations of the Chinese people that such transparency and accountability will continue, not only for the duration of the Bo Xilai case but also more broadly through the political system. Let's hope that the remaining Chinese leaders see the advantage of good governance for their own legitimacy.
  • The need for a more open Internet: In what may be a political first, as the Bo story exploded, China's Internet guardians were equal opportunity censors. Their main goal appears to have been to tamp down rumor-mongering and speculation--particularly when those rumors centered on a coup attempt by supporters of Bo Xilai. Sina and Tencent both followed orders by Beijing to block users from commenting on others' posts and at the same time, Beijing shut down neo-leftist websites such as Utopia. Yet such restrictions are unlikely to work over the long term. Chinese citizens reacted vociferously to the clamp down on their political voice, and their ability to comment was reinstated only four days after being restricted. Beijing should realize that it will never get the Internet genie back in the bottle and let 1.3 billion flowers bloom.

Global Times editor Hu Xijin and others stress that the Party has "full control" of the situation and the "18th People's Congress will take place calmly and in an orderly fashion." That may be. However, unless Wen Jiabao and the other reformers within the Chinese leadership push hard and fast for real political advances, the specter of Bo Xilai and everything he represented--the absolute corruption of one of the Party's beacons of political rectitude, the uncertainty concerning the future political direction of the country, and the questionable legitimacy of the Chinese leadership writ large--will continue to haunt the next generation of Chinese leaders.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Elizabeth Economy is a senior fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and blogs for "Asia Unbound."

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