Bo’s Purge an Opportunity for China’s Modernizers

The ouster of Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai gives Premier Wen Jiabao and his allies a chance to sideline hardliners.

March’s ouster of Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai from the center of Chinese power is proving to be an opportunity for reformist premier Wen Jiabao and his allies to sideline their hardliner rivals.

Before Bo, a local Communist Party boss who was on track to join the Politburo’s Standing Committee, composed of the nine most powerful party leaders, was purged two months ago for alleged abuse of power, five of his allies were expected to be elevated to the Central Military Commission, the body that controls the army. That number is presumed to have dropped to three or four.

In Beijing, there is a rough divide between liberals who favor a more open economy and China’s “peaceful rise” as a superpower and hardliners who adhere more closely to Communist Party orthodoxy and suspect that the United States are conniving with other East Asian countries to contain China.

President Hu Jintao is believed to be in the former camp as is his likely successor, Xi Jinping, currently the Central Military Commission’s vice president. Their views are less pronounced that Wen Jiabao’s however.

Given the consensus building nature of China’s leadership, Hu and Xi cannot afford to take too firm a position lest they alienate hardliners who are influential in Communist Party schools and the military.

Wen, who is set to resign this year, has been outspoken about the need to open up the party if it is to meet the aspirations of the nation’s burgeoning middle class. “The most important mission of a ruling party,” he said in September of last year, “is to abide by and act in strict accordance with the Constitution and the laws.”

The party should not replace the government in governance and problems of absolute power and overconcentration of power should be redressed.

The rather old-fashioned purge of Bo Xilai, certainly a victory for Wen, would seem to contradict his lofty rhetoric but when he spoke of “overconcentration of power,” the likes of Bo should have listened more attentively.

Bo ran Chongqing as his personal fiefdom. In his crusade against corruption, it were often companies hostile to Bo that bore the brunt of his crime fighting efforts. Opponents were silenced without mercy. Bo and his family enriched themselves at the expense of Chinese taxpayers. He put up a great neo-Maoist show, dressing up schoolgirls in plain workers’ uniforms and having them sing revolutionary songs in the streets of Chongqing. The metropolis was sprawling under his leadership but his huge public investments racked up an enormous debt.

The Chongqing model is not one which Wen’s crowd seeks to imitate on the national level. Although the method of Bo’s removal from power — including suppression of online media that were sympathetic to him — harkened back to the days of the Cultural Revolution, there is no appetite for a return to Maoism in today’s China.

Wen said so quite plainly when he referenced the “tragedy” of the Cultural Revolution in his annual press conference in March, one that without reforms, “may happen again,” he said. It was as clear a condemnation of China’s new left and Bo’s revival of “red culture” as a Chinese politician could possibly deliver.