In the United States, Bo Xilai’s “trial of the century” was reported as a spicy cocktail of sex, power and violence. The real story is about rapid economic development, generational change in politics, and the progress of the rule of law in China.
Bo Xilai is the son of the legendary revolutionary leader Bo Yibo, who was born into abject poverty. After fighting against the Kuomintang and the Japanese, the elder Bo became China’s Minister of Finance until he fell from favor in 1965 for promoting more open trade with the West. During the Cultural Revolution, he spent 12 years in prison. While he was tortured, his wife perished in the hands of the Red Guard.
It was this legacy of utter poverty, violence and power that shaped the young Bo Xilai. Despite the cruelties against his family, he joined the Red Guard until he, too, was imprisoned.
Afterwards, and unlike his father, Bo Xilai grew up as a ‘princeling,’ a privileged child of a senior party official.
Meritocracy versus nepotism
If the 1970s had been a nightmare to the Bo family, the 1980s meant absolution.
Following the death of Mao in 1976, Bo Yibo was rehabilitated and became vice premier.
In contrast to his peers, however, Bo did not study engineering, but world history and international journalism. His dream was not to build a new China, but to ensure his own high-profile position in it.
Upon graduation, he was assigned to Zhongnanhai, the Party headquarters, which paved way to his tenures as the mayor of Dalian and then governor of Liaoning.
Unlike his party peers who are moved to different locales through their careers, Bo stayed 17 years in Dalian and learned to court foreign investment. Unlike his peers, too, he was quick to take personal credit for the city’s progress to a modern metropolis.
During the 15th Party Congress in 1997, Bo’s family launched a campaign to secure his membership in the Central Committee. Bo Yibo, now close to 90 years, went even further, promoting the idea that revolutionary elders should ‘nominate’ their children to become high officials. But party members shunned nepotism. The campaign was unsuccessful.
When Bo Xilai’s dream finally did come true, it was not because of family lobbying, but a corruption scandal that ended the career of the incumbent Liaoning governor. As Bo got his job, he also became member of the Central Committee.
In the 16th Party Congress in 2002, Bo was a potential candidate to assume power in 2012, as against Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. Again, the family and the elder Bo, now 94 years old, lobbied for the son. And again, the effort failed. But as Wen Jiabao’s Minister of Commerce retired for health reasons, Bo Xilai, who had a record of attracting foreign investment, got the job, which raised his profile.
In October 2007, Bo became party chief in the ailing megacity Chongqing. Despite some reluctance, he took the job because, by virtue of the position, it ensured a seat on the Politburo.
The Chongqing model
The social and economic policies that were embraced in Chongqing were popularized by Bo, but initiated by a political rival Wang Yang, who was reassigned as party chief of Guangdong. Under Bo’s leadership, however, the “Chongqing Model” shifted to reflect the renewed rise of increased state control and the resurgence of neo-leftist ideology.
In the West, the state-led “Chongqing model” was polarized with the market-fueled “Guangdong model,” as if these were different models for China. In reality, the two reflect the huge regional differences in the mainland. Last year, per capita income in Guangdong amounted to $13,000(USD), as opposed to over $9,340 (USD) in Chongqing. After industrialization, Guangdong is moving toward innovation and consumption-led growth. In turn, Chongqing still needs investment to complete its industrialization.
Bo Xilai’s tenure was also overshadowed by a war against organized crime and corruption. The campaign was overseen by his police chief Wang Lijun. Initially, the large-scale crackdown earned popularity in the city and Western media. But as it resorted to intimidation, harassment, and asset seizures, it was criticized for ignoring due process and the rule of law.
It was then, too, that Bo popularized a “red culture” movement, even as his own son flaunted family wealth at elite schools abroad. The effort to revive neo-leftist morale divided the city. To many, it brought back painful memories from the Cultural Revolution, while reformers saw it as reactionary. But it also came with some $15.8 billion (USD) on public apartment complexes for migrant workers, low-income residents and college graduates. But since infrastructure projects cannot provide sustained funding for broad social programs, the model was an economic dead-end.
But it was the abuse of politics that broke the back of Bo’s administration, and his patronage circles. In spring 2012, his police chief Wang Lijun sought unsuccessfully asylum in the US consulate and was imprisoned. Bo was suspended from the Central Committee and its Politburo, while his wife Gu Kailai became a prime suspect in the inquiry into the death of British businessman Neil Haywood.
The full repercussions of Bo’s fall will be felt a long while after the trial.
“Chicago on the Yangtze”
Despite all political media hoopla, the Bo Xilai reflects failures that are typical to rapid economic development, concomitant political shifts and judicial culpability in all countries, including the United States.
Today, urbanization rate in China exceeds 52 percent. That’s where America was in the early 1920s. Indeed, Chongqing has often been portrayed in the US as “Chicago on the Yangtze,” as Foreign Policy once put it. With its 2 million people, Chicago is a hub for transportation, industry, and commerce. As the hub of Southwest China, Chongqing is a major manufacturing center and transportation hub of more than 30 million people. Due to its inland location, it, too, has historically had a small export sector, opting for local consumer goods, including autos, chemicals, machinery and electronics, and processed food.
In the past decade, Chongqing has coped with the inflow of massive rural migration and rapid political and moral change. In Chicago, industrial expansion took place in the 1920s, when hundreds of thousands of blacks migrated from the countryside and the Prohibition ushered in the gangster era, from Al Capone to Bug Moran.
Historically, Chicago’s machine politics been known for corruption, patronage, and nepotism, from the 21-year Mayor Daley era to 2012, when Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich got a 14-year sentence for political corruption.
In comparative view, then, what is at issue in the Bo Xilai case is not the form of government in China, but the integrity of governance across all countries. Or as the legendary political scientist Samuel Huntington once put it: “The most important political distinction among countries concerns not their form of government but their degree of government.”
It took decades for most advanced economies to get their ‘degree of government’ right in the early 20th century. Today, China is coping with similar challenges. The struggle for progress in governance is not a story about “them,” but about “us.” This fact is not always recalled in the West, due to historical amnesia – and perhaps, a fair dose of hypocrisy.
A version of this commentary was originally published by China-US Focus as “The Real Bo Xilai Story” on September 6, 2013.
Dr. Dan Steinbock is Research Director of International Business at India, China and America Institute (USA) and visiting fellow at Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and EU Center (Singapore). For more, see http://www.differencegroup.net.