Behind closed doors, it is fair to assume that politics in China are no less vicious than in the Rome of Julius Caesar. The sacking on March 15th of Bo Xilai as party chief of the south-western region of Chongqing provided a rare glimpse inside those doors. The son of Bo Yibo, a leader of the Party’s Long March generation, Mr Bo had seemed destined for the zenith of power in China—the nine-member standing committee of the party’s Politburo. His downfall represents the biggest public rift in China’s leadership for two decades. There are reasons to celebrate it; yet the manner of his going is a sharp reminder of what’s wrong with China’s political system...But, there's a lot of backstory to this little affair, well laid out by Foreign Policy:
Welcome, too, is the little window the affair opens into the corrupt, fratricidal ways of party politics. Mr Bo’s downfall was precipitated by the flight to an American consulate of Wang Lijun, his former police chief and right hand in the anti-mafia drive. Mr Wang is now under investigation in China. Mr Bo, too, may soon find himself answering awkward questions. That Chongqing’s dirty linen was aired in front of American diplomats on his watch may matter more than the dirt itself.
Wen Jiabao and Bo Xilai have long stood out from their colleagues for their striking capacities to communicate and project their individual personalities and ideologies beyond the otherwise monochromatic party machine. The two most popular members of the Politburo, they are also the most polarizing within China's political elite. They have much in common, including a belief that the Communist Party consensus that has prevailed for three decades -- "opening and reform" coupled with uncompromising political control -- is crumbling under the weight of inequality, corruption, and mistrust. But the backgrounds, personalities, and political prescriptions of these two crusaders could not be more different.
Bo has deployed his prodigious charisma and political skills to attack the status quo in favor of a more powerful role for the state. He displayed an extraordinary capacity to mobilize political and financial resources during his four and a half year tenure as the head of the Yangtze River megalopolis of Chongqing. He transfixed the nation by smashing the city's mafia -- together with uncooperative officials, lawyers, and entrepreneurs -- and rebuilding a state-centered city economy while shamelessly draping himself in the symbolism of Mao Zedong. He sent out a wave of revolutionary nostalgia that led to Mao quotes sent as text messages, government workers corralled to sing "red songs," and old patriotic programming overwhelming Chongqing TV.
From his leftist or "statist" perch, Bo has been challenging the "opening and reform" side of the political consensus that Deng Xiaoping secured three decades ago. Wen Jiabao, meanwhile, who plays the role of a learned, emphatic, and upright Confucian prime minister, has been challenging the other half of Deng consensus -- absolute political control -- from the liberal right. He has continuously articulated the need to limit government power through rule of law, justice, and democratization. To do this, he has drawn on the symbolic legacies of the purged reformist leaders he served in the 1980s, particularly Hu Yaobang, whose name he recently helped to "rehabilitate" in official discourse. As every Communist Party leader knows, those who want a stake in the country's future must first fight for control of its past.
Until last month Bo appeared to hold the cards, with his networks of princelings -- the children of high cadres -- and the gravitational force of his "Chongqing Model" pulling the nation toward him, while Wen's efforts had produced few practical results.