China’s apparent decision to throw the book at disgraced politician Bo Xilai (薄熙來) is aimed at killing support for a leader at the core of a scandal that tarnished the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and threatened its unity, analysts said.
China said on Friday that the former rising political star would “face justice” for a litany of crimes including abuse of power, bribery and “improper sexual relationships” — an unprecedented rebuke for a top CCP official.
Allegations of graft and other lurid details in a scandal that has already seen Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai (谷開來), convicted of murder have caused divisions within the party ahead of a sensitive leadership transition, observers said.
Residual support for the charismatic Bo has worried a Chinese leadership that insists on total allegiance to the course set by the party, and the attack on Bo is meant to exterminate it, they said.
“Bo Xilai could have become a populist hero, which would have been bad for current leaders ... it’s enough to name his crimes to shatter the illusion of Bo as a heroic figure,” said Zhang Ming (張明), a political scientist at Renmin University in Beijing.
Bo, a former commerce minister and party secretary of the megacity of Chongqing, was known for his suave and open demeanor, unusual in a country where leaders are typically rigid bureaucrats, and for his open lobbying for promotion to the top national leadership.
However, this irritated many in the CCP and violated a code against naked ambition and other ill-discipline. Bo’s populist style of leadership included a nostalgic revival former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東)-era “red culture” that, along with a high-profile crackdown on organized crime, had wide appeal.
“I think that [Chinese president] Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) has scored some kind of victory because Hu and [Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶)] wanted stiff punishment against Bo as opposed to some party elders and Maoist elements,” China analyst Willy Lam (林和立) said.
As the party prepares for a once-a-decade transition to a new set of top leaders that will be unveiled in the CCP’s 18th Congress on Nov. 8, intense internal jockeying for top positions is rife, but an outward image of unity is considered sacrosanct.
However, Zhang said some protesters in recent anti-Japan demonstrations over a territorial row carried banners that voiced support for Bo, which he said “alarmed many people in the party.”
China’s leaders were believed to be fiercely debating what to do with Bo, a risky business since airing details of impropriety would highlight official graft — a source of public anger.
The fierce internal bargaining among China’s ruling elite likely has influenced the leadership selection, although it is impossible to know for sure, observers say.
Bo’s supporters are thought to be identified with conservative forces backing more state involvement in the economy.
Patrick Chovanec, from Tsinghua University in Beijing, said destroying an official’s career by airing corruption allegations “was always a strategy to completely vilify whoever is getting purged, and therefore the message was really about cleansing itself of a bad apple.”
A day after state media painted Bo as an unscrupulously corrupt villain, Wen called for Chinese to “rally more closely around” the party leadership, but he did not mention Bo.
However, casting Bo as bad egg will be a tough sell among ordinary Chinese who increasingly see the CCP as being rife with corruption.