China’s Reformers Close Ranks, Bo’s Legacy Endures

President Hu Jintao insists that Bo Xilai’s ousting was an “isolated case,” but start ideological differences certainly remain.

China’s Communist Party reformers appear to have gained the upper hand since the ousting of popular Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai but in the city that he ruled for five years, his legacy endures.

Bo’s populist and neo-Maoist style of socialism in Chongqing contrasted with the party’s ideology which has drifted toward liberalism in the past twenty years. Moreover, his approach to governance challenged the model of party consensus and stability that China’s leaders have upheld to ensure smooth leadership transitions.

In anticipation of a routine shakeup at the top of the Communist Party hierarchy, Bo, eying a seat on the Politburo’s decisionmaking body, was purged two months ago, allegedly for abuse of power and amid a scandal that saw his wife charged for the murder of a British businessmen.

The careers of five of Bo’s allies in the top ranks of army, who were expected to be elevated to the Central Military Commission, are also in jeopardy.

Reuters learned that outgoing Chinese president Hu Jintao urged senior party officials in Beijing early this month to stifle tensions over Bo’s removal and show unity as they prepare for a change of leadership. Hu declared Bo’s downfall an “isolated case” but clearly, there is an ideological struggle going on between liberal reformers like Premier Wen Jiabao and hardline leftists who also tend to be more hawkish on foreign policy.

To what extent President Hu can be included in the former camp remains a mystery. He doesn’t speak out much and that’s probably how Hu keeps a lid on dissent. Also unclear is just how much of a struggle is going on behind the scenes and how many of Bo adherent there are.

Bo did have a following among leftists who embraced what they viewed as his model of egalitarian growth and they have continued to defend him as the victim of a plot. He used Chongqing, a provincial municipality in southwest China, as a showcase for left leaning policies.

Those policies were repudiated by Premier Wen in March when he warned that the “tragedy” that was China’s Cultural Revolution “may happen again” — an oblique reference to Bo’s neo-Maoist tendencies.

Now, one of the country’s most reform-minded provincial chieftains, Wang Yang of Guangdong, China’s largest province on the southern coast, apparently stands to benefit from Bo’s removal.

Wang has experimented with freer markets and local democracy in Guangdong and is critical of state control. “We must get rid of the misconception that the people’s happiness is a gift from the party and government,” he said this month. Wang may hope to secure a more powerful spot on the Politburo now that Bo is gone.

If Chongqing and Guangdong are showcases of alternate models for China’s development, it’s notable that both are prospering except the former is laden with debt as Bo financed growth on credit and doled out funds to his cronies in state-owned enterprises.

Yet Bo’s legacy endures. The Washington Post reports that in Chongqing, he still garners admiration and respect from his people. High levels of public spending on construction and social welfare programs are also likely to continue in spite of Bo’s fall from grace.

China’s next generation of leadership is expected to continue the course of the Hu-Wen Administration, if not at the pace that Wang has been able to in Guangdong.

The party congress, scheduled to be held late this year, will in all likelihood elevate the technocratic vice president Xi Jinping to the presidency while Wen Jiabao is slated to be succeeded by Vice Premier Li Keqiang.

Bo may be out of the picture but the ideological divide at China’s core remains. Even if the next generation is able to take over without much of a fuss, its members will have to constantly look over their shoulders to ensure that there is unity in their ranks. The ghost of Bo Xilai will haunt them and it should.