Bo Xilai and neo-Maoism in China

by Jamie Kenny

The ousting of Bo Xilai as Party chief of Chonqing municipality is about much more than the murder of a British businessman. Structural factors among China's ruling elites made his departure a shock, but not a surprise.

First published: 15 April, 2012 | Category: China, International

At midnight on 10 April, China Central Television led its late night news bulletin with the news that Bo Xilai, former Communist Party head of Chongqing municipality and once a candidate for the Politburo’s highest ranks was under investigation for “serious indiscipline”. His wife, prominent lawyer Gu Kailai, was under investigation for nothing less than the murder of Neil Heywood, a British businessman with links to the family. The news was more shocking than surprising. Bo had already been relieved of his post in Chongqing in March. Still, it was the end of an era – or perhaps the end of a revival of another era.

On March 28, He Shizhong, propaganda chief of Chongqing, told local media that the time had come to “realistically summarise and analyse propaganda work over the past few years.” Mr He promised to end “theatrical collective performances” and avoid “movement style methods”.

Maoist revival

Theatrical collective performances and movement style methods were the signature motifs of Bo Xilai’s reign in Chongqing, a province–level city about the size of Austria and with four times the population. They were public mobilisation techniques in a so-called “sing the red, smash the black” policy which combined a kind of kitsch Maoist revivalism with a brutal but effective clampdown on organised crime.

Low level cadres and ordinary Communist Party members were dragooned into revolutionary song festivals. Officials were ordered to go to the countryside and plant trees. They were also each given a group of peasant families to ‘look after’. Meanwhile, the city’s cellphone owners were pestered with Mao quotes and the local city-owned TV station dropped its adverts and adopted wall to wall ‘red programming.’

Adding substance to display, Bo argued publicly that the state should play a greater role in the Chinese economy, and that the time had come for China to lessen its focus on growth above all and start some serious wealth redistribution.

It was a combination that won him the backing of China’s resurgent, though strictly unofficial, neo-Maoist movement. The neo-Maoists are sometimes referred to as China’s New Left. This is inaccurate: the Chinese New Left are a loose intellectual association with a generally altermondialist critique of China and its place in the global economy. The neo-Maoists on the other hand are, as the saying goes, exactly what it says on the tin. They want a return to the workers’ and peasants’ state. They want Communist Party cadres to function under the revolutionary vigilance of the people. And they want the boss back. In Bo Xilai, the neo-Maoists believed they had found their neo-Mao. Bo’s downfall is, in part, because many of his colleagues in the Communist Party believed they might have a point, and they were not prepared to tolerate the prospect.

Bo’s career may have come to an official end on April 10, but his downfall started back in February with the flight of Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun to the US Consulate in Chengdu, where it is widely believed he applied for asylum. If he did, he was turned down. Wang was eventually taken to Beijing by an escort including senior members of the Central Discipline Inspection Commission (CDIC), the Party’s internal security force. The charges against Bo and Gu are presumably based on what Wang told the CDIC about his boss and the family.

But what Bo might actually have done is not necessarily central to his removal. What the seriousness of the charges, against Gu Kailai in particular, tells us is that the Communist Party very badly wanted to dispose of him. The question is therefore why.

For some, it’s a matter of policy. In a conversation with journalists shortly after Bo’s March dismissal, China’s Premier Wen Jiabao warned of the prospect of a new Cultural Revolution. This was seen widely as an attack on Bo and his leftist tendencies and a warning that if he had been allowed to stay in power the whole course of China’s political and economic reforms would be rolled back. Some reports even said that Wen had himself orchestrated Bo’s fall, partly as revenge for the purging in the 1980s of his old patron Hu Yaobang in which Bo’s father, Bo Yibo, played a prominent part, and partly to clear the way for greater political and economic freedom – the latter being understood in the classical free market sense.

At this point a sceptic might ask what “reforms” Wen might have been thinking of. Though identified as a liberal, Wen has not done much in his time as premier to push for more political freedom or more economic deregulation, though he often speaks wistfully about them. What’s more, his term in office ends in October.

Maintaining the status quo

Yet Wen’s remarks about the Cultural Revolution are significant. Their implication is not so much that Bo’s leftism threatened reform, but that his pseudo-Maoism and demagoguery threatened to unravel the basic structure the Communist Party had adopted in the post Mao era. In other words, Bo’s departure was necessary not to ensure change but to maintain the status quo.

It’s difficult to over-state the psychological effect the Cultural Revolution had on the CPC. Many members still alive now were targeted for punishment, torture and humiliation during that time. Most of the actual ruling group were Red Guards, later sent down to the countryside to ‘learn from the peasants’. In political science terms, China has shifted from tyranny to oligarchy and it is plausible to explain this shift as an attempt to ensure that nothing like the ‘ten years of chaos’ ever happens again.

And the Cultural Revolution itself was an intensification of processes that had always been present in CPC rule. The party has always functioned through mass campaigns and purges, through the identification and ‘dragging out’ of enemies. In the years before the death of Mao, that process had reached the point where the party had been all but torn apart. It was clear to Deng and the people around him that if the Party were to continue to rule, then profound changes would need to be made to the way it went about its business.

This can be seen in the various leadership transitions since then. Mao was a classic tyrant. Deng Xiaoping was a paramount leader, who decreed that after he stood down, the Party leader would be chosen by a process of collective decision making -  though in fact, it was Deng who chose his successor, Jiang Zemin. Collective leadership really kicked in with the appointment of current president  Hu Jintao, a man who isn’t so much self-effacing as self-erasing: a kind of core sample of the Party, a first among equals who rules by establishing overclass consensus.

Stately waltz

All of this requires a constant balancing of various factions and interests within the Party. Jiang Zemin and his Premier Zhu Rongji were both part of the ‘Shanghai gang’ brought in by Deng to stabilise the country after the suppression of the 1989 uprisings. Hu Jintao rose through the Party’s China Youth League or ‘populist’ faction. His accession to the top job came at the price of accepting Wen Jiabao, a protégé of Zhu, as premier. Hu’s anointed successor Xi Jinping is not from his faction, but the next premier, Li Keqiang, is.  This process goes on at all levels within the Chinese power structure, a stately waltz intended to ensure that everything is predictable and that no one, as they used to say on the quiz shows, goes away empty handed..

The threat Bo’s antics posed to such arrangements can be shown by the story of the gingko trees, as related by Chongqing native Xujun Eberlein on her blog. Bo had once said that he liked gingko trees, so his underlings decided to make him a present of them while he was away on business. In the space of a couple of days, they scoured southern China for the variety and planted thousands of them all over the city. Bo approved of the gesture when he returned: “Planting trees never makes mistakes” he said. “Using the rhetoric reminiscent of the 1950s and 60s, when "you committed mistakes" were the most terrifying words in frequent political campaigns” added Eberlein.

Even if Bo hadn’t intended to play the boss here, he had triggered a kind of lust for servility among his officials that, if replicated elsewhere, threatened to radically destabilize the post-Mao Party consensus, just as his supporters among the neo-Maoists resembled the personal claque of a tyrant-in-waiting rather than the supporters of the Party as a communal enterprise.

Deng Xiaoping and his successors had carefully crafted  the CPC as a basically non-ideological vehicle for the ambitious, a place where they could rise through the Party-state power structure with considerable latitude to do whatever job they were assigned in the way they thought best, provided they didn’t steal too much in broad daylight, kill people in person or cause any major riots. All party members have to do is serve their patrons, protect their clients, help out their guanxi network, compromise when necessary and basically get along with each other. And then along comes Bo, and with him the threat of an earlier, fiercer time. No wonder Hu Jintao is supposed to have called him a traitor.

Bo’s current whereabouts are unknown. It is likely that he is being held somewhere by CDIC under what is known as shuanggui, “double discipline”: a state of affairs that involves a number of procedures, none of them pleasant. His network has been rolled up; the popular neo-Maoist websites have been shut down, and some of his major associates have also disappeared.

Meanwhile the watchword of the day is ‘firmly support the CPC central committee’ a phrase on constant rotation in all media and all the relevant organs. Indeed, it’s also on the lips of some less relevant organs, such as this carpet shop advertising on the local Taobao sales site:

“Yalin Home Fabrics Flagship Store. We firmly support CCP Central Committee’s decision regarding Bo Xilai. Spend 400 in our store and you can 100 back. To satisfy the people!”

Bo Xilai is history. But capitalism with Chinese characteristics rolls right along.

Jamie Kenny (@jkbloodtreasure) is a writer specialising in China. He blogs at Blood & Treasure

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