Dirty Business

Brendan Forde reports on the latest intrigue in Chinese politics.

With the periodic leadership change set to begin later this year the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have been careful to avoid scandal or negative publicity. Given the sensitive nature of the time, they are focused on presenting a united front to both China and the world. But a recent scandal involving a senior provincial leader and candidate for promotion has highlighted significant differences in the political and economic outlook of the leaders of the CCP.

On the 6th of February the high profile vice-mayor police chief of Chongqing municipality, Wang Lijun, disappeared. The municipal government announced that Wang had begun “vacation-style therapy” to address ailments arising from a particularly burdensome workload. The announcement came a week after the local government revealed that Wang was being moved sideways out of policing into a portfolio related to education, science and environmental matters. But the announcement was met by persistent rumours online that Wang had fled to the consulate of the United States in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, seeking asylum. The government responded to these rumours by blocking internet searches for Wang and his boss Bo Xilai.

Despite the lack of confirmation from government sources, the US consulate in Chengdu was apparently surrounded by hundreds of security forces. On the 9th the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs conceded that Wang had visited the consulate and the matter was being investigated. It appears that Wang left the consulate that same day, surrendering himself to authorities. An all pervasive silence settled over the affair driving speculation that Wang had cut a deal to testify against Bo.

Bo Xilai is the CCP Secretary of Chongqing Municipality, Southwest China. Chongqing is one of the four Chinese municipalities (including Shanghai and Beijing) which have the political status of provinces giving their leaders greater authority and influence. As Party Secretary of Chongqing, Bo is responsible for  28 million people. Bo, a member of the Politburo, is a controversial figure in Chinese politics. He is a leading member of the New Left in Chinese politics, favouring greater state intervention in the economy and society. As the son of former leader Bo Yibo, the younger Bo is widely considered to be a “princeling”; a rising leader from a Chinese political dynasty. As Party Secretary of Chongqing, Bo has introduced expanded social welfare. He came to prominence for his high-profile campaign against corruption and organised crime in Chongqing, which also catapulted Wang into the national spotlight.

Wang had been Bo’s right hand man since Bo’s tenure as governor of north-eastern Liaoning province. Bo’s time in Liaoning was not free from controversy, but he executed his role with enough  competence to be promoted to national Minister of Commerce, then Party Secretary of Chongqing. When Bo went to Chongqing, he brought Wang with him. With Bo leading, they initiated a campaign against corruption and organised crime resulting in the downfall of several high profile officials and business figures, gaining both Bo and Wang widespread national recognition.

Bo’s adherence to the New Left has gone beyond an expanded social security policy and an anti-corruption campaign. After his arrival in Chongqing Bo initiated a national campaign for a return to “red” values;  that is, a return to the principles of the Maoist period of Chinese politics. This campaign has manifested itself in the use of media to broadcast Maoist revolutionary songs. Taken together, these elements constitute what has been referred to as the “Chongqing Model”, a vaguely coherent attempt to fashion an alternative to the particular paradigm of capitalism prevalent in China. The Chongqing model has been particularly controversial amongst liberal scholars and officials. Seeking  an extension of the free market, they see the Chongqing Model as a return to the days of Maoism, with Bo as its opportunistic prophet. Despite this, Bo’s campaign has attracted the attention and limited support of many senior leaders who have appeared at Bo’s public revolutionary concerts. However, that may change. An open letter, released in Wang’s name accuses Bo and his immediate family of corruption. Such allegations are not new, and have followed Bo for much of his career. Many  senior Chinese officials have similar clouds hanging over them. Yet Bo was once spoken of as a potential future Premier, or at least a member of the Politburo Standing Committee. Evidence of corruption may embolden Bo’s liberal enemies in Beijing to move against him. However, two facts make this unlikely. Firstly, given the political sensitivity of the period, no leader will want to cause the CCP embarrassment. Secondly, Bo is one of the shrewdest and capable politicians in China. He has survived by reinventing himself, certainly he is capable of such a deft act yet.