The recent meeting of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) brought to the surface the internal turmoil at the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The eminent Chongqing party chief and city boss, Bo Xilai (薄熙來), was removed from power.
He had become a champion for those unhappy with the rising tide of crime and corruption, and turned his city into a leader in the tough, and often brutal, campaign against alleged mafia and gang leaders. His police chief, Wang Lijun (王立軍) was Bo’s main ally in the anti-corruption campaign until Wang said he found some skeletons in his boss’ closet that allegedly linked him and his wife to the death of Neil Heywood, a British citizen who lived in Chongqing. Wang said that Heywood had been the victim of a business relationship gone sour with Bo’s wife.
Fearing for his life, Wang sought asylum in the US consulate in Chengdu, claiming to have a trove of incriminating formation on his boss. The Americans refused to get involved in this internal party intrigue and the Chinese authorities took him away. He has not been seen since. Bo fronted a press conference in Beijing while there to attend the NPC meeting, and said he was unrepentant about his crusade against crime and defended his wife’s affairs. His only regret was that he had trusted Wang. Now that his wife, Gu Kailai (谷開來), has been detained by the police as they investigate Heywood’s death, the power struggle is becoming more like a murder mystery.
Why was Bo considered important and dangerous enough to warrant his removal in the middle of the NPC session? One reason, as suggested above, was that he seemed to attract people that were unhappy with the state of China’s corruption and crime. His anti-mafia crusade at times appeared like a political witch-hunt. His actions stoked the Maoist nostalgia of persecuting those who usurped the party leadership, which would explain why Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) raised the specter of another Cultural Revolution like the one Mao Zedong (毛澤東) engineered in 1966. The seriousness of the situation created rumors of a coup, and the Chinese authorities, alarmed, clamped down on Internet and social media sites.
The primary Website of the Bo Xilai-aligned far left, Utopia, was ordered offline for publishing articles that “violated the constitution, maliciously attacked state leaders, and speculated wildly” about China’s leadership. Founded in 2003, Utopia had become the vehicle for China’s resurgent left wing, who opposed Western style economic reforms and, at times, criticized the party leadership.
In his espousal of the Maoist past, Bo was reportedly winning support in the upper echelons of the party to make a bid for a spot on the nine-member Standing Committee, the top governing arm of the CCP, at the next party meeting in autumn where China’s new leadership for the next 10 years will be consecrated. But all his carefully laid plans were sabotaged by the betrayal of his police chief in his run to the US consulate.
The CCP can be broadly divided into three factions: First is the party’s hard-left, who gathered around Bo and challenged the party leadership over its market friendly economic policies. This left wing seems to have been badly damaged with the sacking of Bo.
The second faction is the relatively liberal one, which advocates political reform and further liberalization of the economy. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has been expounding these views for some years with limited success. Wen has highlighted the danger of a possible replay of the 1966 Cultural Revolution if nothing is done.