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Updated: April 21, 2012 23:33 IST

Bo scandal puts spotlight on China's corruption challenge

Ananth Krishnan
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Bo Xilai
AP Bo Xilai

“The Communist Party of China,” the article warned, is “being confronted with the danger of a slackened spirit, incompetence, divorced relations from the people, inactivity and corruption.”

What was most striking about the warning was where it appeared: on the front page of the People's Daily.

This editorial, which was published this week, was one of a string of commentaries published by the Communist Party of China's (CPC) official mouthpiece in recent days, part of what Chinese scholars have described as an unprecedented and unusual public opinion campaign that is being waged by the government.

Reflecting concerns that the purge of popular and influential Politburo member Bo Xilai could trigger divisions within the party, the CPC has launched in recent days a massive propaganda campaign, using both official media and microblogs, to mobilise public opinion against the charismatic Chongqing party secretary who was suspended for “serious discipline violations”.

The commentaries have been seen as an attempt to present the Bo Xilai case as a clear-cut corruption issue and not, as widely believed, a reflection of factional political infighting. The message is that the party is serious on cracking down on corruption.

“The government is saying that this is a corruption fight, and not a political struggle,” Qiao Mu, Director of the Centre for International Communication Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University told The Hindu in an interview. “The problem is,” he added, “few people believe that”.

Mr. Bo, a “princeling” Communist leader whose father was one of the CPC's founding revolutionary “immortals”, was seen as a key figure in the next generation of the leadership. While he is being investigated, his wife Gu Kailai has also been accused of “intentional homicide” and involvement in the death of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, who was close to the Bo family. The case came to light after Wang Lijun, once Mr. Bo's close associate, fled to a U.S. Consulate in Chengdu seeking asylum after raising Heywood's death with Mr. Bo.

One recent People's Daily commentary lambasted officials who were using their families and mistresses to send money overseas, without naming Mr. Bo. Separately, leaks from unnamed officials to the media alleged that Ms. Gu's falling out with Heywood was over the transfer of assets overseas. Michael Anti, a senior Chinese journalist, said he believed all of the leaks on microblogs were coming from the government to shape public opinion against Mr. Bo.

The campaign has brought attention to the sensitive issue of corruption in officialdom, a widespread source of public anger in China. While Chinese media often report on the rampant corruption among local government officials, Politburo members are off limits for discussion. Mr. Bo's case has, however, unusually turned the spotlight on corruption both at the highest levels of government and of the highest scale.

The People's Bank of China warned in a report last year, which was subsequently deleted from its website, that officials were taking money out of the country. It quoted statistics from the official Chinese Academy of Social Sciences as estimating that 800 billion yuan ($126 billion) had been transferred overseas by officials since the mid-1990s, according to the China Daily.

This focus on corruption has also given bold Chinese media outlets the opportunity to ask difficult questions. “As a rule, corruption thrives in an authoritarian regime,” wrote the respected magazine Caixin this week. “A leader with exceptional self-discipline may be able to stay above board. But, at this stage of its development, China offers too many temptations, and the collusion of money and power is commonplace.”

While announcing Mr. Bo’s suspension from the Politburo, the CPC said the Wang Lijun incident was “a serious political event that has created an adverse influence both at home and abroad, the death of Neil Heywood is a serious criminal case involving the kin and aides of a Party and state leader, and Bo has seriously violated Party discipline”.

But Mr. Qiao said the incident was more a reflection of the whole political system rather than merely evidence of Mr. Bo’s faults, pointing out that he rose through the system and was earlier even appointed to serve in Beijing, as Commerce Minister. Other microbloggers have written that there were other higher officials known to be far more corrupt than the popular Mr. Bo.

He said “the whole case is very bad for the party’s image and credibility". “For Wang Lijun going to the Consulate, they said Bo Xilai should take responsibility,” he said. “But then the question is, who is responsible for Bo Xilai?”

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