The world sees the Chinese political system as efficient and smart. The view from Beijing is starkly different.
The purge of Bo Xilai, who was suspended this week from the Communist Party of China's (CPC) powerful 25-member Politburo for “serious discipline violations,” has become a kind of Rorschach test for China-watchers. For critics of the CPC, it is being seen as evidence of factional discord that will upend the once-in-a-decade leadership transition which will take place this year. State-run media, on the other hand, have portrayed his sidelining as reflecting the party's commitment to maintaining discipline within its ranks. For the many detractors of the ambitious Mr. Bo, his purge is a victory for reformers against a dangerous neo-Maoist demagogue. His supporters on the Left, meanwhile, are bristling at the ousting of a leader who they believed had taken on entrenched special interests and had the answers to the problems of inequality and crony capitalism that post-reforms China is grappling with.
Beyond the reasons for his removal, a more important question to ask is what the recent events mean for the future of Chinese politics. Until he was sidelined, Mr. Bo, who served as the popular party secretary in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, was seen as a key figure in the sweeping changing of the guard which will see seven of the nine members of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee step down this year. Mr. Bo had launched himself into national prominence — and as a favourite for securing one of those seven posts — in Chongqing, a sprawling municipality of 30 million people that sits on the Yangtze river, where he had served as party secretary since 2007.
A corruption crackdown he launched there along with his close aide, the city's police chief, Wang Lijun, took on special interests and mafia groups and brought him national attention. Mr. Bo became one of China's most popular political figures for his “smash the black” campaign. Adding to his appeal was a rare charisma that eluded his technocrat colleagues. Like Xi Jinping, the anointed successor of General Secretary Hu Jintao, Mr. Bo was a “princeling”, the son of a former leader. He hailed from the highest section of the party elite — his father, Bo Yibo, was, along with Xi Jinping's father, one of the CPC's eight “immortal” founding revolutionary figures. He enjoyed support from a wide network of allies, including fellow princelings and military officers who owed allegiance to his father.
In Chongqing, Mr. Bo also became the poster-boy of a resurgent “New Left.” His moves to loosen social welfare restrictions for migrant workers, boost the provision of low-income housing and expand the power of State-run enterprises were christened by leftist academics as a new “Chongqing model” of governance, heralded as an antidote to the problems of inequality created by three decades of economic reforms. More controversial were his Mao-inspired campaigns, including the mass singing of “Red songs” and daily dispatches of “Red texts” to the mobile phones of Chongqing residents carrying sayings of the Great Helmsman.
Mr. Bo was all set for a grand return to Beijing for this fall's 18th Party Congress to claim his Red inheritance and take his place at the highest levels of power. All that changed on February 6. Following a falling out with Mr. Bo, the reasons for which are still unclear, his once right-hand man Wang Lijun fled to a U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, reportedly seeking asylum. Rumours that circulated on Chinese microblogs, which first broke the news, claimed he had been fearing for his safety after telling Mr. Bo he had evidence that his wife, Gu Kailai, had been linked to the death of a British businessman, Neil Heywood. In an announcement that stunned China this week, the CPC confirmed the rumours. A statement said Ms Gu had been held on the suspicion of intentional homicide, while her husband also faced investigations over serious discipline violations. Mr. Bo's future in the CPC is now all but over, while his wife faces criminal charges.
Much is still unclear about Heywood's death, his relationship to the Bos and what triggered the events of recent months. What prompted Mr. Wang to investigate Mr. Bo's family is also unclear. Sources close to the leadership say it was almost certain he was backed by a prominent detractor of Mr. Bo's in Beijing. “It was as if a trap was being laid for him,” said one source. “And he walked right in.”
What is clear is that his sidelining has exposed cracks in the façade of unity that the Chinese leadership was looking to project in a sensitive year that will witness sweeping changes. The government's unease over the discord sown by his removal has been evident in a stream of articles published in state media in recent days urging unity within the Party. Front page editorials have appeared in The People's Daily on consecutive days denouncing Mr. Bo.
His purge is likely the first instance since 1989 — when liberals and conservatives clashed openly against the backdrop of the Tiananmen Square protests, leading to the ouster of several reform-oriented leaders including former General Secretary Zhao Ziyang — when ideological differences over the way forward for the CPC's future have spilled out into the public domain. The day before his removal as Chongqing Party Secretary, Mr. Bo was criticised publicly by Premier Wen Jiabao for his handling of Wang Lijun and more significantly, for his policies in Chongqing. He suggested that Mr. Bo was questioning the consensus adopted in 1978 to push forward economic reforms. Mr. Wen even warned of the dangers of a second Cultural Revolution. Mr. Bo's critics on the liberal Right have often levelled a similar accusation.
Mr. Bo and his critics do, however, agree on one thing: that China needs to reform its political and economic system to address rising inequalities and deep-rooted corruption. Mr. Bo's popularity in Chongqing and elsewhere stemmed from his apparent efforts to address both these entrenched problems. Those on the Right have similarly backed calls from Mr. Wen for political reforms and to curtail the power of once-again dominant State-run companies that are seen to be stifling competition.
Yet even Mr. Wen's repeated calls appear to have achieved little over the past decade under his tenure. He himself acknowledged in recent speeches the barriers he faced from interest groups. At a time when the Chinese political system is receiving much praise overseas for its supposed efficiency and smoothness, the events of recent weeks are a timely reminder that the view from China is starkly different, as concerns grow about a system that is blunting efforts to reform, from Left and Right, and a status quo that is proving difficult to dislodge.