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The Bo Xilai case: line up the suspects and protect the Politburo
One of the fascinating elements in Bo Xilai’s fall has been just that – the extensive intrigue surrounding China’s most dramatic political story of this century. As we have argued previously, the political demise of the Chongqing boss has to be seen in the context of Communist Party elite politics. What is now following the initial shock takes us even further into the hall of mirrors.
The bottom line, as far as it can be glimpsed, is that Bo, as a prominent member of the Politburo, is to be accorded maximum protection – at least for the moment. Instead, as we noted in an earlier post, his wife, Gu Kailai, is being blamed for all the allegations connected to the death of the British businessman, Neil Heywood, and other corrupt and illegal practices. It has been announced that Wang Lijun, the police chief whose flight to the US consulate in Chengdu set the ball rolling in February, is to be put on trial for treason, a charge that potentially carries the death penalty.
Then consider the alleged interview with Bo which swept round Chinese websites and was attributed to a conservative Japanese commentator. If genuine, this was extraordinary – never before has somebody held in detention by the Communist Party spoken to a newspaper, let alone a foreign one, and let alone a Japanese one. Bo’s assertions that he was the victim of evil conspirators who suffered from his campaign against crime in Chongqing and that he had wanted to divorce his wife but held back to maintain appearances suggest the way the authorities in Beijing have decided things should play out. The journalist says they met in a private room in a hotel near Tiananmen Square and ate duck, abalone and other delicacies as they talked. A translator supplied by the Security Ministry was present and two policemen stood guard outside, he added. But the account has subsequently been denied by informed sources who see it as a fabrication by Bo's supporters aimed at paving the way for his return.
Damage limitation is the name of the game. Bo’s Politburo ally, Zhou Yongkang, the internal security chief, has been on prominent display in the past weeks to combat rumours of his impending demotion. He may have lost some of his policing powers but the appearance of unity at the top was maintained as he undertook a tour of Xinjiang and then joined Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao at a well-publicized ceremony to honour police officials in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Xinjiang Daily added to the display of confidence in Zhou by reporting that he had been elected as a member of the Xinjiang delegation to the forthcoming Communist Congress, presumably in recognition of both his security role and his long-standing links with the energy lobby, oil and gas being a major element in the western region’s economy.
With Zhou being allowed to play out his time at the top before he retires on age grounds at the Congress, the game plan for the third act of the Bo drama appears to be as follows. The Party centre led by Hu will focus on a show of top-level unity so that Bo can be consigned to the past, Xi Jinping will be prominent in this.
Beijing will carefully vet the Chongqing represenatatives to the Central Committee meetings that will come before the Party Congress late this year, ensuring stability while avoiding a troublesome public purge - the Mayor of the metropolis is still on the list for the Central Committee despite his close associaiton with Bo. A trusted provincial leader will be lined up to take over the running of the metropolis. Army units in south-west China which have family links with the fallen politician through his father will be kept in line as will younger PLA generals who belonged to his "princelings" group; this may not be to much of a problem given reports that the target of a big anti-graft crusade launched by the leading Fifth Generation general, Liu Yuan, had a cousin of Bo's wife as its main target. Gu will be saddled with the blame for Heywood’s death and for questionable financial dealings overseas. Wang will be held liable for police misdemeanours in Chongqing. Business figures who benefited from their association with Bo in Chongqing and during his previous time in charge of the port city of Dalian will be hauled in along with local political associates; some sources say more than 50 have been detained so far.
Bo will be painted as a husband who was too busy with his official duties either to keep watch on his wayward wife or to control his duplicitous police chief. He will not be reinstated. That would be a step too far and those at the top who feared his ambition will not give him a second chance. But the sanctity of the Politburo, and therefore of the Party, will be preserved. That, after all, is what really counts, especially in a year of leadership transition.