Bo Xilai: China leaders try to put scandal behind them

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, standing left, makes a toast with high-ranking Chinese officials during a dinner marking the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Saturday, 29 September 2012 China's leaders have wanted to show they are united - with any rifts from the Bo Xilai scandal behind them

Ever since the scandal surrounding Bo Xilai erupted into the open, China's leaders have seemed divided, the political narrative here uncharacteristically adrift.

Now, having decided how to deal with Mr Bo, the Communist Party is, finally, moving to reclaim the initiative and re-focus attention on its coming leadership change.

But the whole affair has exposed tensions which run to the very heart of the way the party exerts power in China, and which its next generation of leaders will have to grapple with.

The nine men on the Politburo's Standing Committee appeared together, in public, at the weekend, sitting round the same table, at a reception to mark 63 years since the founding of the People's Republic.

A day after reaching agreement on how to handle Mr Bo's transgressions and, therefore when to stage their leadership transition, this was a top team that wanted to show it's united, any rifts behind it.

Paralysis and infighting?

China's leaders lost control of the narrative in February when Wang Lijun, Bo Xilai's deputy, fled to the US consulate in Chengdu and made his explosive allegations that Mr Bo's wife had murdered a British businessman.

Bo Xilai, file pic from March 2012 Bo Xilai has not been seen in public since the investigation into him was announced

It triggered a crisis, because Bo Xilai was a contender for the party's new leadership line-up and had powerful backers.

Almost with a sigh of relief, the Global Times, a Party-run paper, welcomed that "the date of the party congress and the handling of Bo, two topics that have drawn huge attention, have finally became clear," saying it "demonstrates the ability of the [Party's] Central Committee to reach consensus on major issues."

But the need to reach consensus has meant months of what looked like paralysis and infighting.

Instead of an open, transparent legal process, Mr Bo has been hidden away, under secret, internal Communist Party investigation.

The leaders had to resolve their differences over him before they could move ahead with deciding who will fill the seats in the next leadership line-up.

What has filled the void in the meantime has been what the Global Times calls "wide speculation... with diverse opinion on the web that spreads despite attempts to control content."

The Communist Party's secretive decision-making and its aversion to airing its internal arguments openly look increasingly hard to sustain in a nation where three hundred million people now debate almost everything on the internet.

In its comment, The Global Times said: "China cannot expect to run anything, including politics, entirely smoothly. The frenzy of public opinion before the congress may offer some materials for authorities to reflect on. Chaotic public opinion is a result of lack of information."

Controlling information

So will China's next leaders have to be more open? The Global Times seems to think so.

"The authorities' effort to ensure candid transparency on crucial information is the condition and prerequisite for forging a public consensus in the future. China will advance toward the disclosure of information," it opined.

But controlling information is one of the most important ways the party retains its monopoly on power. It will be a hard habit to break. And when you are open it can easily backfire.

Timeline: Bo Xilai scandal

  • 6 Feb: Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun flees to the US consulate in Chengdu
  • 15 Mar: Bo Xilai is removed from his post in Chongqing
  • 20 Mar: Rumours suggest Mr Bo could be linked to the death of British businessman Neil Heywood
  • 10 Apr: Mr Bo is suspended from party posts and his wife, Gu Kailai, is investigated over Mr Heywood's death
  • 26 July: Gu Kailai and Bo family employee Zhang Xiaojun are charged with killing Mr Heywood
  • 9 Aug: Gu one-day trial for murder held
  • 20 Aug: Gu given suspended death sentence
  • 5 Sep: Wang charged with defection, abuse of power and bribe-taking
  • 24 Sep: Wang sentenced to 15 years in jail
  • 28 Sep: Bo Xilai expelled from party to "face justice"

Over the weekend China's media has been carrying commentaries designed to spread the party line on Bo Xilai's case. His downfall is being presented as an important signal that the party will not tolerate corruption.

"Through Bo's case, a principle was upheld - no matter how high the position a party member holds and how influential he is, he will be held responsible and face severe punishment for violating party disciplines and laws," wrote the state news agency Xinhua.

"The decision is another example in showing the CPC's clear stance and firm determination to fight corruption. It will be welcomed by the people," it added.

But already many are sceptical about the implication that Mr Bo is a lone bad apple and his downfall is nothing to do with politics.

The long list of charges against him stretches back 15 years and includes "receiving huge bribes personally and through his family", "improper sexual relations with a number of women", and "abusing his power".

"These crimes can be applied to all party officials," was a typical comment on China's microblogs. "Old tricks to discredit someone by sex scandals" was another.

"How could the party promote him all the way to the politburo?" wrote one user. Another asked "Who should take responsibility for wrong decisions in promoting Bo?"

So rather than looking in control and dealing even-handedly with corrupt officials, the party may find itself tarnished by association with Mr Bo.

Many in China already believe all officials are corrupt, and only those who fall out of favour get prosecuted, they'll see this case as confirmation of that.

It's not lost on many that if Wang Lijun had never fled to the US Consulate and spilled his secrets, the Communist Party may never have investigated Bo Xilai.

It might instead have been on the verge of making him one of China's next senior leaders.

Consensus first

Under China's system the Communist Party controls the media, the police, the prosecutors and the courts. The party is not subject to outside checks and balances.

File photo: Labourers at a construction site in China China is the world's second biggest economy - but growth is slowing

That's why Mr Bo has been dealt with, by the party, in secret. The courts will now simply confirm the party's decisions about how to punish him.

But what its next leaders will have to grapple with is whether that can continue to be the case. Is the system compatible with managing a nation as big and complex as China today?

Can one party monopolise power and police itself while running the world's second biggest economy and governing well over a billion people?

Facing growing public scepticism, challenged by corruption among officials, and an economy that is slowing how will China's next leaders ensure clean and efficient government.

The official China Daily - in an article titled China at a critical time as CPC congress approaches - said: "The most pressing issue for the Chinese public is the uninhibited and widespread abuse of power and corruption among government officials and businessmen."

It said China needed to adapt, "giving more respect to the will of the people in making policies will continue to be a challenge for the CPC", adding, "when the congress opens, people inside and outside China should closely watch the country's new leaders, as what they say and do may signal the beginning of great changes in China and the rest of the world."

The tricky bit is that they are likely to have to reach consensus first before any "great changes" happen.

Damian Grammaticas Article written by Damian Grammaticas Damian Grammaticas China correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Chibuku --- 'The problem in China is that "corruption" just isn't seen quite so negatively as we see it in the west'

    That's probably because your acquaintances are the beneficiaries of the system. If you talk with ordinary people, you will find that what they resent most is the pervasive corruption in the Chinese society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    When will West voice oncern of its own perhaps not so transparent relation with oil rich sheikhdoms or say countries like Pakistan it's own avtivities and relation with ( past)dictators in Egypt, Yemen, African countries, central Asian countries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    China has its own way of doing things; I respect that.
    It may appear non-transparent to outsiders, secretive...but who are we to judge the internal workers of another country?
    If I know the Chinese, they will profit from this experience; some things will change, and the country will move forward at its own pace.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    China will only deal with government corruption when it becomes a global embarrassment. But how many Chinese will view the treatment of Wang Lijun as an incentive to come forward so publicly? How many will believe that Gu Kailai, never mind Bo Xilai, would have been judged at all if Wang Lijun had simply reported his concerns to the CPC? The CPC will not change unless forced and has clearly signaled the population to remain silent on official corruption. The only remaining question is how long the CPC can buy the public's silence with economic growth, however unevenly distributed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    So Bo Xilai is now in trouble. But was Gu Kailai the person sentenced in court? That person looked nothing like the photographs previously published of Gu Kailai.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    "controlling information is one of the most important ways the party retains its monopoly on power."

    The Singapore regime (which shares many characteristics with it's counterpart in China) is losing it's control of information. See the recent revelation that journalists have complained to the US Secretary of State about "government control of the media" -

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I personally know a number of Chinese officials and businessmen who are engaged in corrupt activities such as bribery and nepotism, and this does appear to be standard practice in China. The problem in China is that "corruption" just isn't seen quite so negatively as we see it in the west (with the notable exception of Siemens); it's merely an extension of "guanxi", a Chinese social philosophy which places great importance on the personal network. Guanxi is similar to our "old boys network", but far more pervasive and powerful, so I see little chance of the situation changing any time soon!

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Someone commented about China's poor and that the Chinese government will have to wake up to it one day, but the US has approximately 15% of its population below the poverty line! So when will the US start to deal with its problems, rather than find scapegoats to blame for everything? China wasn't always the US bogeyman, it was Japan before remember! The international media highlight issues in China a lot more than those in other countries, simply because it's still politically deemed correct to be anti-Chinese/Beijing. This just feeds into a vicious cycle of China bashing!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    "Villains who twirl their moustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well camouflaged....he/she, or someone like him/her, will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish, spreading fear in the name of righteousness."

    Captain Jean-Luc Picard

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    re: #2 Hizento
    Yes, Bo Xilai dressed himself up like a western politician.The real danger (apart from the smell of corruption) was that he'ld try to emulate Mao. We already had the "sing red smash black" crusade in Chongqing, fighting crime by the most dubious methods.
    China's present leaders are all technocrats who lived through the personality cult of Mao. I guess they never want to go thro' anything like that again.
    The problem is that in China there is nothing to stop this happening. Wang Lijun's midnight trip to Chengdu might've saved China not just from corruption, but from a worse fate

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    So, at last, the paralysis has ended and they've decided about Bo and the date of the CPC Congress. Today, national day, they laid wreaths at the monument to the People's Heroes & remembered the founding of "New China".
    Since 1949, as ChinaDaily says, the party has had many twists and turns and the cultural revolution was self-inflicted by the CPC.
    No one party has the right to govern for ever, even a party which reinvented a country.
    As Damian says: without Wang Lijun, the Bo corruption scandal would've stayed hidden.
    The Soviets lasted 73 years. I wouldn't bet on the corrupt old CPC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Just before the recent scandals of Bo Xilai the BBC heaped praises on the man saying Bo "is the closest China has to a western style politician" indicating that he is some kind of a saviour for China to have a western style government. Of course corruption and rule bending is part and parcel of being a western style politician and Bo Xilai is no exception.
    Likewise if Bo Xilai was in the West he will get a golden handshake and sell books about his crimes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    It took to the Soviet empire over seventy years to fall apart. It proves that you can't enslave people forever. Now they are both, Russia and China rebuilding and building the political system with certain similarities of the old.
    Chinese hundreds of millions of rural country poor are hidden behind the city's glitter. Unbearable factory working condition, building on credit, old age populations are only few problems Chinese will eventually have to face. Only time will tell, if they can or can't succeed.



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