The race to save face: Bo Xilai's ousting disgraces China

By Daniele Pestilli on April 22, 2012
A picture of Bo Xilai (CC)

Mr. Bo Xilai was removed from his position in the Chinese Politburo on April 10th as he is “suspected of being involved in serious discipline violations,” the same day his wife, Gu Kailai, came under investigation for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in November 2011.

The initial reports attributed his death to alcohol poisoning. A reinvestigation by Chinese authorities showed evidence that Heywood had been murdered, with Gu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun both “highly suspected” according to Xinhua News. The New York Times reports, Mr. Heywood's body was found in a hotel in Nan'an district and was cremated before an autopsy was performed. Xinhua claims the reason for the murder can be attributed to a “conflict over economic interests, which had been intensified.”

Upon being ousted from his position, the media, which Bo Xilai had so cleverly manipulated to his advantage during his career, has turned against him, vilifying him so to safeguard the stability of China's impending political transition. The New York Times claims, this “has arguably been the greatest mobilization to support a decision by the party since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989,” which was an effaced page of Chinese history that many Chinese are still earnestly unaware of.

Mr. Bo's crisis started on February 6th, when Wang Lijun, police chief of Chongqing and Bo's top-enforcer in a massive crackdown on crime, entered the U.S. consulate in Chengu. After spending nearly 24 hours there, he reportedly “left of his own volition.” Although the U.S. Department of State made no comment regarding the content of this meeting, many think Wang might have been seeking political asylum from the powerful grip of Bo Xilai. Wang was surrounded by some seventy cars of armed police, but as Beijing's authorities heard of the event, they demanded the withdrawal of the security forces and Wang was escorted to Beijing on a first-class flight.

On the same day Bo Xilai was removed from his Party posts, around 10,000 people gathered on the streets of one of Chongqing's districts throwing rocks at security officers, smashing and setting fire to police cars. However, they were not protesting the latest political scandal, but the reductions in medical insurance and social security. These riots, which took place on April 10th and 11th, are a reminder to the central authorities in Beijing of the dangers the Communist Party may face as political scandals emerge.

The CPC is wary of this peril. It is also aware that adversity can spark incredible opportunity.

The Chinese government has taken Bo's ousting as a chance to make its own image shine: China's state-run Xinhua News articulates, the decision to investigate on this incident proves the “Party's unequivocal and consistent opposition to corruption.” They underline the country's priorities by stating, “China is a socialist country ruled by law, and the sanctity and authority of law shall not be tramped. Whoever has broken the law will be handled in accordance with law and will not be tolerated, no matter who is involved.” This supposedly sends a signal that the central Chinese authorities are willing to be tough in disciplining its leaders and resolute in fighting corruption. Xinhua News clarifies: “it is not surprising that the CPC, with more than 80 million members, have some black sheep.”

The New York Times specifies that editorials on this incident have “refrained from explicit character attacks on Mr. Bo or Ms. Gu and have not taken aim at Mr. Bo's policies in Chongqing.”

The reason for this is most likely due to Bo's popularity. Bo Xilai held a rock-star status among the people in Chongqing, since he was a charismatic figure who some called a “celebrity politician.” Bo is renown for having made the streets of Chongqing safer and essentially mafia-free. Ironically, in an open letter allegedly written by Wang, Mr. Bo is accused of being “the greatest gangster in China,” and of treating his subordinates like “chewing gum” (that is, they are easily disposable when no longer useful).

What's becoming increasingly evident is that the CPC's motives are not to debunk a murder case or eliminate corruption from its viscera. Its intentions are politically charged: China must save face and the Communist leadership needs to shine in a staged act of unity and strength.

Cyber-attacks

Boxun.com, a website based in North Carolina that campaigns for human rights and democracy in China, published reports regarding the fate of Bo Xilai since early February. The website is often referred to on Chinese micro-blogging sites. It subsequently received a DDoS (distributed denial-of-service) attack, which involves overloading the target server with requests making the website unable to respond to legitimate requests, thus paralyzing it. The Washington Post writes that Boxun's domain registrar, Name.com, “received an anonymous e-mail threatening to continue the disruption unless it dropped Boxun.”

Name.com helped the website move to another registrar - namely the popular German domain registrar 1&1 - so to safeguard its 1.5 million domains and websites which are put at risk with such massive cyber-attacks.

On April 20th, the British national daily The Guardian reported that the cyber-attack conducted on Boxun.com is believed to have been “ordered by China's security services.”

The Chinese government heavily censors the internet, blocking websites like Boxun, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and many others. Google also tried stepping into the Chinese online market but, due to heavy censorship, soon stepped out. Savvy netizens often find ways of circumventing these blocks through proxy servers that get them around China’s internet firewall, which censors material it considers sensitive. Upon circumventing this block, the information can then spread to other Chinese netizens.

Ever since the Bo crisis, the internet has been saturated with gossip, which the CPC has rushed to cover up and control.

Quoting Wikilieaks as one of its sources, an article in the Epoch Times explains how Google's withdrawal from China was plotted by Bo Xilai among others: Mr. Bo would regularly meet members of the popular Chinese search engine, Baidu, such as its chairman Li Yanhong, in order to help the domestic search giant stave off foreign competition. It may be that Mr. Bo, the advocate of anti-corruption, is now rushing to save face by corrupt means.