The hound is boiled - Bo Xilai ousted as party secretary

By Daniele Pestilli on March 17, 2012
US Secretary Gutierrez meets Chinese Minister Bo Xilai. By commerce.gov, via Wikimedia Commons

An old Chinese adage says, “after the cunning hares are killed, the hound is boiled“. This is an apt metaphor of China's current situation.

On May 15th, the PRC's official press agency Xinhua News released a one-sentence statement confirming that Chongqing Committee Secretary Bo Xilai (62) was ousted as party secretary. He was a contender for leadership within the Politburo as well as the son of Bo Yibo, one of a select group of powerful veterans of the 1970s known as the “Eight Immortals” who survived the Cultural Revolution, spearheading China into the powerhouse it is today.

It is thought that the decision was a response to a recent scandal involving his ethnically Mongol police chief, Wang Lijun, who visited the U.S. consulate in Chengdu on 6 February this year. Rumor has it that Wang may have been seeking political asylum, bringing evidence of Bo's corruption to the Americans' attention. When Bo realized he could be investigated for his misdeeds, he cut his most faithful comrade Wang out of the picture. A day after this incident, Wang was arrested by the police and detained for a “vacation-style medical treatment“ because of “mental stress”.

This incident comes at a sensitive political moment for China, which will be electing the 18th Central Committee of the CPC this autumn, in which Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will succeed Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao respectively as Politburo Standing Committee members.

Bo Xilai was a charismatic figure who

Often called a “princeling“ because of his father's legacy as a Communist leader, Bo initially seemed to be China's golden boy, aligned with Party Secretary Hu Jintao as well as Premier Wen Jiabao's ideals and with no big policy disagreements with top leaders, his ambition and charisma may have frightened his peers. According to Tea Leaf Nation, “leaders who may develop cult of personality are usually frowned upon”, as the party prefers collective power as opposed to one-man-outshining-them-all (at least in theory). Law professor Wang Jiangyu tweeted, “too bad he is overly ambitious, and became almost unscrupulous in recent years in using an ideology that is out of sync with the mainstream. His behaviors have offended other high level officials and enraged intellectuals everywhere.“

Bo is being replaced by Zhang Dejiang, who will now take on the role of Chongqing Committee Secretary. Zhang attended Yanbian University where he studied Korean, and subsequently, from 1978-1980, studied economics at Kim Il-sung University in North Korea. Zhang maintains close relations with state industry titans, and is a member of the Shanghai clique - that is, officials who have a strong affiliation and rose to prominence with former CPC General secretary Jiang Zemin. From this, we can infer that the factions associated with Jiang will continue to hold a strong influence in Chinese politics.

There are now seven seats at stake on the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, which consists of the top leadership positions in China. Xi Jinping, the Vice President of the PRC and Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and Li Keqiang, the first-ranked Vice Premier of the State Council, are both expected to retain their seats. The other seven currently-serving members must resign due to age duties, as they are above 67. This will result in one of the biggest power turovers since the founding of the communist state.

The dark power struggle within China is certainly still on. It appears increasingly difficult that Bo Xilai can stay in the 25-member Politburo, although there is a chance he may be kept at a distance and dispatched to a powerless post so to not interfere in Chinese politics. What remains to be seen is how the vacuum left by Bo will be filled, both in Chongqing and within the Politburo Standing Committee. The day before Bo's sacking, China's prime minister Wen Jiabao stated that without political reform, China might suffer another tragedy “like the Cultural Revolution”. The helms of power in one of the world's most powerful and influential nations are contended between very few people who have a lot at stake in a victory or loss. The CPC's only smooth political transition occurred in 2002. It seems that 2012 is off to a rocky start.