Circumstances, it seems, have finally caught up with one of China’s most high profile leaders.
Bo Xilai, controversial Communist Party chief of Chongqing has been removed from
office, replaced by trusted and experienced Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang.
Although the removal, which took effect last Thursday, has not yet been accompanied
by a public investigation or prosecution against him, Bo’s career and record have been
The implication of his removal is that he was involved in the corrupt activities of his
erstwhile deputy Wang Lijun. Bo’s chances of elevation to the powerful Politburo Standing
Committee, along with his desired return to hard-line Maoist policies, have been perhaps
As Party Secretary of Chongqing, Bo commanded significant power and influence. The
decision by the Central Party to remove him cannot have been easy. Yet, equally, it was not
surprising. Bo had become both unpopular and unpalatable in Beijing.
His public ambition received a poor reception among his superiors, and his high profile
campaign against corruption had attracted much attention from the outside world.
Eventually, the very targets of his campaign, the wealthy elite of Chongqing, began to fight
back as best they could.
Li Jun, a former Chongqing business figure claims that he fell victim to the anti-corruption
campaign after he refused to hand over a parcel of valuable land to the local government.
Li was arrested and tortured while his property development company valued at
$700 million was seized by the government. Another business figure, Zhang Mingyu,
claimed online that he had evidence that linked the Chongqing government to crime
figure Weng Zhenjie (who was not targeted during the ant-corruption campaign). Zhang
has since been arrested.
Other allegations against Bo have come to the surface, including that he deliberately
targeted deputy police chief Wen Qiang during the anti-corruption campaign. Wen had
worked closely with Bo’s predecessor and rival, Guangdong party boss Wang Yang. Wen
was arrested, convicted and eventually executed.
Chinese politics can be a high stakes exercise.
The scandal involving Wang Lijun’s attempted defection to the US badly embarrassed
Bo, and triggered much speculation that his career had received a mortal wound.
This speculation amplified when Bo was absent from the opening session of the National
People’s Congress (NPC).
Bo was notably absent from the area where the members of the Politburo sit during such
sessions. However, he later appeared at a side meeting of the Chongqing delegates to the
NPC. Addressing the delegates, Bo said that he had been surprised that Wang had become
involved in a scandal and had attempted to defect. Bo mentioned that he had even tried to
convince Wang to leave the US consulate in Chengdu, but felt that he had placed his trust
in the wrong person. He also explained his earlier absence with the excuse that he had
been sick with a cough.
In many ways, the signal that Bo was about to be removed came from Premier Wen Jiabao.
In the concluding press conference of the event, Wen warned that, without reform,
China risked plunging into another calamity, such as the Cultural Revolution.
This not so-subtle swipe at power hungry officials such as Bo was further emphasized
when Wen said that the current administration in Chongqing had to seriously reflect
on the Wang Lijun case, and learn lessons; particularly lessons from the Cultural Revolution.
A speech made by Vice-President Xi Jinping in which he warned Party leaders not
to pursue populism or fame and to abide by consensus driven government, was also published.
The move to publish the speech is telling: Xi had previously visited Chongqing during
the height of Bo’s power. Praising his campaign to spread Maoist songs, Xi sought to
publicly associate himself with Bo. Xi’s back peddling also says a lot about the
current power dynamics in China. While the removal of Bo mirrors other high profile corruption
cases in China, such as that of former Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu in
2006, political considerations cannot be ignored. By adopting populist policies and actively
cultivating an image of himself abroad, Bo violated the parameters of Chinese politics.
With the public fall of Wang Lijun, Bo could no longer resist those in Beijing who
wanted to remove him. The replacement of Bo by Zhang Dejiang indicates that the Central
Government sees Chongqing as something of a political disaster zone. Already, two
high ranking local government officials have committed suicide; more prosecutions will
The entire saga however raises important questions on how Chinese politics is reported.
Undoubtedly, the membership of the next Politburo Standing Committee has already
been decided behind closed doors. While we cannot know for certain if Bo
was to be elevated, removing a candidate so close to the change would be both unwise and
destabilizing. Regardless, Bo will have great difficulty in resuscitating his career.