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What does the Bo Xilai drama tell us about China today?
The announcement on Tuesday of the suspension of Bo Xilai from the Communist Party and the investigation of his wife concerning the death of the British businessman Neil Heywood was so dramatic and out of character for the regime that casting the runes as to the deeper implications is an uncertain business. Still, let me hazard the following 10 thoughts:
- The fall of Bo appears to be a sign that the two main factions in the leadership, the Princelings and the Youth League group, have come together to get rid of a wild card.
- Bo had got too big for his boots. His populism and personal ambition were anathema to a regime which operates by consensus and in which the centre always has to dominate (shades of 1920s warlordism in Chongqing).
- The affair spotlights the murky area where business and politics meet, as evidenced by the alleged dealings between Heywood and Bo’s wife. In this world promising projects and careers can be scotched by a change in the political context, as shown by the downfall of leading business figures such as the head of the Gome retail chain after his political protector was toppled and the travails of the Shanghai property moguls when the city’s Party Secretary under whom they had prospered was brought down by Beijing.
- Bo’s fall and the announcement of a wider investigation suggest that somebody at the top recognized this was a case could not be swept under the carpet. That is quite a change of mindset in a regime that has always assumed its ability to exercise absolute control.
- The weekend crackdown on websites that had hosted blogs about the Bo affair was acknowledged to have failed, so the top leadership stopped prevaricating.
- Bo’s open opponent, Wang Yang, Party Secretary of Guangdong, emerges strengthened. In view of his calls for a new economic model and an overhaul of social policies, the reform camp is on firmer ground today than it was when Bo was riding high with his statist approach in Chongqing. Whether Wang will be able to push this after he gets to the Standing Committee of the Politburo later this year is a big question.
- But Li Keqiang, the favourite to become prime minister in 2013, swung behind the reform camp in his speech at the Boao Forum this month.
- Wen Jiabao has achieved revenge for the way in which Bo’s father went for the reformers in the 1980s, especially Hu Yaobang and his reported attempt to get Wen purged as well.
- The development of Chongqing will continue. The ‘Go West’ policy is bigger than Bo. Foreign businesses that have invested in the mega-metropolis have no reason to fear for their commitment.
- The danger is that consensus among the top leadership will assert itself to slow down reforms that China needs. If the affair buttresses the status quo, it is bad news in the medium term.