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Hu Jintao Intends No Fresh Start in Bringing Down Bo Xilai

April 20, 2012

18th Party Congress Watch (7)

Gao Wenqian, HRIC Senior Policy Advisor

After nearly a month of silence, the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao administration finally made its move: it announced that Bo Xilai was suspected of “serious disciplinary violations,” was suspended from the Politburo and Central Committee, and is under investigation. An episode of the great drama of power struggle in the Party’s high echelon in advance of the 18th Party Congress has come to an end. These days, the political situation in Beijing is volatile, with all kind of rumors flying around. Not only are the people talking about it—official media of different backgrounds have also joined the fray, releasing different, conflicting information, with public opinion spiraling out of control. Those of us who lived through the Cultural Revolution naturally think of the summer before the fall of the Gang of Four.

It is in this light that Hu Jintao has no choice but to painstakingly avoid the struggle over China’s political direction, so as not to fuel contention within the Party. Instead, he used Bo’s wife’s suspected involvement in the death of the English businessman Neil Haywood as his first line of attack, in order to silence those in the Party who are protecting Bo. At the same time, Hu is also appropriately leaving Bo some breathing space: Hu continues to call him "Comrade Bo," says that Bo has only “violated (Party) disciplinary rules” rather than “violated (state) law,” and refers to Bo’s dismissal as a “suspension” rather than a “termination.” Hu is doing his best to avoid provoking those within the Party who support Bo.The way that the authorities have handled the Bo Xilai problem—in a black box— and their indecisiveness are precisely why rumors are raging. And the reason for their indecision is that the Bo issue affects everything. It involves not only the power play between the Princelings and the Communist Youth League Factions in the lead up to the 18th Party Congress, but also the ideological struggle within the Party. How the Bo-led Chongqing Model is judged will have bearing on how China will be governed in the future. In a situation of many opposing views among the Party’s many factions, and with his own weak authority, Hu will be unable to straighten out the Bo problem any time soon. To directly expose and criticize Bo Xilai politically is bound to ignite a heated dispute within the Party and cause a backlash. It could ruin Beijing if mishandled and overturn the CPC boat. That is something that none of the inner factions wish to see.

Aside from tactical consideration, there are deeper reasons for how Hu is handling the Bo problem. Hu’s decade-long administration has been hijacked by the power elite. He has stood still in the face of tremendous changes in society and used intense stability maintenance to deal with the many social issues that have arisen due to the lack of reform. This has resulted in a vast gulf between the rich and the poor and ever-worsening social injustice, which formed the fertile base for the Chongqing Model to take root. Not only that, Hu himself is the originator of the turn to the left in contemporary Chinese politics. Upon taking office, Hu visited Xibaipo [a village in Pingshan County, Hebei Province, the former headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army and base of the Communist Party of China] to pay his respects, and proposed “learning from Cuba and North Korea” politically. He also orchestrated a “Mao Zedong Thought Formation” in the parade commemorating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2009—to support the leftists in China who adulate Mao and add fuel to their flame. Compared to this, Bo Xilai's “Sing Red” campaign pales in significance. This is why Hu Jintao is unwilling to get to the root of the problem and completely cut off the leftists—doing so will bring trouble for himself as well.

From how they are dealing with Bo Xilai, one can see that the authorities are continuing the same old practice: putting the Party above the law, and arresting the person before coming up with a charge. They do not follow the normal judicial procedure and instead make the public speak in one voice and show its support for them. All this shows that Hu Jintao is unwilling to make a fresh start, to break from the ideological mold of the old Party culture. Ai Weiwei said it well: “Bo’s ouster was not a judicial victory, nor did it achieve justice. Instead, it is proof that the Party is above the law.” Even as the authorities say that they will handle things in accordance with the law, they are using the same old tricks to deal with Bo. How different is this from the “strike black” campaign in Chongqing?

The Bo Xilai affair highlights the necessity of political reform in China and is possibly the last chance the Communist Party has to turn a new leaf. However, I am not optimistic. Recently, the authorities have detained a great number of people in the name of investigating “rumors,” shut down websites, and tightly controlled public opinion—these are bad signs. The authorities are striking with both hands, attacking the Maoist left as well as the liberals and civil society activists. At the same time, they are raising a smoke screen to confuse public opinion. Once they can hold their ground, they will be able to continue to maintain the Party's status quo. This is a trend worth watching in the wake of the Bo Xilai affair.

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