Bo Xilai and Xi Jinping: The Divergent Paths of China's 'Princelings'

The standard-bearers of China's political elite couldn't have had more different fortunes this year.

The standard-bearers of China's political elite couldn't have had more different fortunes this year.


Xi Jinping (Reuters)

As 2012 draws to a close, China has achieved its twin objectives: ensuring its second peaceful political transition since 1949 and piloting the economy to a soft landing. But what defined the year was the rise of one princeling and the fall of another. What they had in common were powerful political families that propelled their careers, yet the contrast of their eventual fates couldn't have been starker. Xi Jinping, snubbed for the Time "Person of the Year", captured the highest office in the most important developing country in the world. Bo Xilai, on the other hand, crashed and burned into an ignominious anonymity.

In mid-February, as then-Vice President Xi swung through Washington and Iowa so Americans could take stock of the presumed heir to the imperial Chinese throne, the Bo drama unraveled back home. A week earlier, Bo's close confidante and police chief Wang Lijun's attempted defection to the US consulate ricocheted from Chongqing to Beijing and quickly around the world. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Bo saga was perhaps the most sensational political crisis out of China since 1989. But unlike then, media had changed dramatically. Tiananmen Square protests arguably allowed a relatively young CNN to prove the viability and appeal of its 24-hour news cycle. More than two decades later, the Bo scandal demonstrated both social media's impact and deficiency, as a confusing mixture of uncorroborated rumors and facts spun a complex web of speculation and truth. For foreign journalists, however, this was a once-in-a-generation story that led to some of the best mainstream China coverage in my lifetime.

Ultimately, the downfall of one princeling did not lead to the sort of large scale instability that China has prevented for 23 years. But Bo's episode was perhaps one of the most significant cautionary tales for a Communist Party that has, in some regards, lost its way. It hit at two of the fundamental sources of the ruling party's staying power: its credibility and governance capacity. The party's proven record as competent steward of the economy shifted to whether it could regain the confidence of its own people and whether the exposure of corruption at the epitome of power means the party is still entitled to its governing mandate.

It is this political problem to which the victorious princeling must now shoulder and address. Indeed, Xi has already shown an awareness of the serious setback his party suffered. And such awareness has likely led to his recent articulations of a "Chinese Dream" and the adoption of China revival rhetoric soon after he entered office. The flurry of stylistic and behavior changes from the top is intended to re-brand the party and reestablish some semblance of "virtuous" leadership. Rhetoric, however, brings the particular risk of raising expectations and a deeper and more profound cycle of cynicism when those expectations are not met within a reasonable amount of time. Just ask the man of the year himself Barack Obama, who has dealt with bouts of optimism and disillusion.

But if campaigning is poetry and governing is prose, then now that Xi has "campaigned" in Guangdong, he must follow up with the prosaic execution of change. For the new Chinese administration, re-winning the hearts and minds of its own people will be the political exigency in 2013.