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Bo Xilai’s Poisonous Legacy

Aug 28, 2013

A rising political star. A murderous wife. An attempted cover-up. A runaway police chief. A playboy son. A secret French villa. A corrupt official. A political downfall.

This conflagration of events surrounding the former high-ranking Chinese official Bo Xilai has captured the imagination of China watchers around the world. After 18 months of speculation, preparation and anticipation, Bo’s trial on charges of corruption and abuse of power began Thursday in Jinan, China.

The trial, with its predetermined outcome, will not be the climax of Bo’s story as much as the beginning of its long denouement as the Communist Party seeks to sweep this scandal under the carpet and turn its attention to the country’s economic problems.

But for China’s leadership, the stains of Bo Xilai will not fade from those carpets so easily. As Bo is hauled off to serve years in prison, the most likely outcome of the trial, the leadership will be left to address the social divisions exposed by his demise.

Bo represents a generation of Chinese leaders who were raised in an era of Communist upheaval and came to power amid capitalist excess. He entered politics with a lust for power in a country without a soul.

The details of Bo’s early history are murky. He embraced Mao’s revolutionary cause as a radical Red Guard but spent a spell as a teenager imprisoned. He is said to have broken the ribs of his own father, the veteran Communist leader Bo Yibo, in a violent confrontation. Yet, like many of the so-called princelings, children of senior party officials, he relied on his father’s lobbying to start his political career.

In his role as the Chongqing Province party secretary, Bo led the charge to revive Maoism. He abused his underlings while expecting their adulation in return. He cracked down on organized crime but ran Chongqing like a mafia boss. He fought corruption while engaging in it himself. He preached traditional Communist morality while his son flaunted his wealth at elite schools abroad. He opposed Western-style democracy but campaigned as if he were up for democratic election.

Those contradictions will be manifest in this week’s trial, wherein the new leadership under President Xi Jinping aims to showcase the application of due process but will wield its power absent an independent judiciary. China’s leaders have worked to develop a Goldilocks strategy: presenting evidence that is not too weak and not too strong. They realize that strong evidence would embolden critics of Communist Party corruption, whereas weak evidence would leave many viewing Bo as the unlucky scapegoat of intraparty machinations. For the leadership, the trial is a no-win situation.

After the trial, the political stains of the scandal will remain, forcing the party to confront the major divisions in society whose fault lines have been exposed by the case.

After coalescing for a fairly seamless political transition in 2012, the Chinese leadership has been divided over how to handle Bo’s trial. The princelings, who are led by Xi and dominate the Politburo Standing Committee, may differ greatly from Bo in terms of personality, but they empathize with him through their shared political background and sense of “red nobility” entitlement to run the country.

Leaders of a different political background, especially those with close ties to former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, may want to see a more severe punishment for Bo. Additionally, Bo knows many secrets about his former Politburo colleagues, many of whom will want to ensure that he stays quiet for a long time to come. However these maneuverings are resolved, residual alignments from the trial may spur new ideological alliances among the leadership as it shifts to debating the political and economic direction of the country.

This debate over political and economic policies is being led by China’s public intellectuals. Members of the New Left, for whom Bo was once the most visible patron, champion Maoism and advocate a greater state role in economic planning to reduce China’s income gap. On the other side, liberal intellectuals are pushing for more rapid economic and sociopolitical reform. These starkly disparate views will clash, especially when the party embarks on potentially sweeping economic reforms at October’s Third Plenum of the Central Committee.

Finally, the Chinese people, and particularly the growing middle class, are increasingly disillusioned over the country’s political direction. Although they support anti-corruption efforts, they are aware that Bo’s corruption was far less severe than that of other Chinese officials. Even if this week’s trial is portrayed as a victory for Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, it will primarily reinforce how commonplace graft has become. Less swayed by corruption accusations, another significant group of people, most noticeably in Chongqing, sympathizes with Bo and continues to regard him as an inspirational and effective leader who got things done.

These stark divisions are not going away anytime soon. Unless the party leadership can implement meaningful reforms to establish a more accountable and representative government, the stains of Bo Xilai’s legacy may be deeper than we can now imagine.

Cheng Li is the director of research at the John L. Thornton China Center at The Brookings Institution, where Ryan McElveen is a researcher.

© 2013 The International Herald Tribune

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