New Left Project

Beijing and Bo: Triangulating Left and Right

Wang Kang, a sixty-something, well connected man about Chongqing, calls himself a buyi, a term loosely meaning ‘unaffiliated scholar.’ Mr Wang’s scholarship consists of a low level but productive multimedia career, one which has seen him apparently gain widespread familiarity with the city’s power structure. But the most interesting question about Mr Wang concerns his affiliations, since over the last fortnight he has become a major source for Western media on the scandal that led to the downfall of Bo Xilai.

It was he who revealed the name of the hotel where British businessman Neil Heywood was found dead last November. He has also informed various reporters that Mr Heywood was murdered by poison and that Gu Kailai, Bo’s wife, was responsible for the crime. He has even insisted that the two were having an affair. Mr Wang is not an official or policeman, but claims to be passing on information from his own sources close to the investigation of Madam Gu.

Given the blackout across Chinese media on anything other than strictly official news of the whole affair, it is reasonable to conclude that if Mr Wang is not actually affiliated, he may be operating under licence. Other unofficial voices have been silenced. Journalist Yang Heiping, whose own connections enabled him to speculate authoritatively on the case, found that not only were his blog posts on the subject wiped from the Sinosphere but that his whole blog was deleted with them. Li Delin, a Beijing based finance writer who first floated rumours about an attempted coup in the aftermath of Bo’s dismissal fared even worse. He’s now in detention. But Mr Wang continues to speak out unmolested.

Taking Wang Kang as a kind of unofficial official spokesman, what does his story say about what Beijing wants us to know? The first significant thing is the focus on the alleged crimes of Madam Gu, which tends to take the spotlight off Bo’s own activities: she has also been described as mentally unstable in accounts not specifically credited to Wang, but certainly coming from the same general vicinity. The unfortunate Mr Heywood, meanwhile, has been characterised either as Madam Gu’s lover or as her personal money launderer: sometimes both. Wang Lijun, the Chongqing chief of police whose flight to the US Embassy prompted Bo’s unravelling, has been portrayed as a deeply unstable figure who claimed he was once an FBI agent, performed autopsies on executed criminals, and had the summit of a local mountain topsliced in order to build a monument to fallen police officers.

Reuters later reported that Wang had approached Bo with news that his wife had poisoned Mr Heywood. Bo agreed to investigate, then changed his mind. And that prompted Wang’s hejira to the US consulate in Chengdu.

Overall, what we have here is a story of a great man brought down partly by his own weaknesses, but mainly by those around him: the crazy wife, the dubious foreigner and the trusted subordinate who turned out to be completely bonkers. All in all, it’s more of a tragedy than a crime.

Some of these revelations seem to have been forced by circumstance. In the interval between Wang Lijun’s flight and Bo’s downfall, many of the same allegations were made by the US-based dissident website Boxun, an outlet normally considered more enthusiastic than reliable. Boxun is partly funded by the US government, and it seems likely that some of what Wang told US diplomats in the Chengdu consulate was leaked to the site, perhaps as a warning to China that it could not keep a lid on the whole affair.

Whether forced or not, we have an emerging narrative which seems to be crafted not to exonerate Bo, but to unpick the man from his policies. That perception is supported by a carefully crafted report in the China Daily on April 16. It found the singing groups Bo had started to be still in existence, but that they sang ‘old’ instead of ‘red’ songs. While they did so, they sat under Banyan trees, Chongqing’s traditional city emblem, not the Gingko trees imported by Bo. When interviewed, citizens sternly insisted that Bo be tried under the ‘rule of law’ and not through ‘rampant purges and attacks’ characteristic of the Cultural Revolution. Elsewhere, the Chongqing Daily ran an editorial hailing the fifty largest local private companies as the city’s top taxpayers. That in itself is not inconsistent with Bo’s policies. Neo-Maoism aside, he was always an assiduous courter of foreign investors.

The significance of the Chongqing Daily’s front page may lie in its implicit rebuttal of a counter narrative about Bo’s rule that began to take shape shortly after Wang Lijun’s flight and that appears to be mounted from reformist and pro-market elements within the country; the unofficial but tolerated Right that exists in parallel to the neo-Maoists, though with more lodgement inside the Communist Party and a greater presence in local media.

Under this narrative, Bo’s anti-mafia campaign in Chongqing was simply a pretext to arrest and extort local businesspeople to fund social programmes. These were additionally funded by taking on massive debts, which also provided the money for Bo’s own extravagant beautification projects. The cheap housing that Bo provided for the city’s workers may have made him popular, but such measures are not economically sustainable and were designed merely to enable Bo to acquire a wider power base among the poor and ignorant.

There are a number of answers to this: for one thing, if Chongqing didn’t have a widespread politics/business/crime nexus, then it would have been the only big city in China so blessed. His anti-mafia campaign may have been brutal; but so have all the other ‘strike hard’ campaigns that the Party has used to try and flush crime out of the system since it first came up with the idea in 1983. The main difference here was in Bo’s personal branding of the campaign. But what we see here goes beyond whatever facts may be demonstrated. Firstly, this can be interpreted as an attempt to make Bo’s rule seem substantially as well as stylistically a ‘red terror’ and in so doing fully discrediting the ‘Chongqing model’ of state-led development. And behind that we can see an attempt on the Chinese right to use Bo’s downfall to create momentum for a reversal of the overall drift towards state capitalism in China evident since the global financial crisis.

Like many other countries, China’s initial response to the crisis was to throw money at it. But most of the money it threw didn’t come from central government. Instead, local authorities were ordered to think of projects, usually involving infrastructure or housing construction, and state-owned banks were ordered to lend them the money for whatever they came up with. Meanwhile the export sector, where many of China’s private firms operate, was hit badly by the downturn in Western markets. And with bankers ordered to fund public sector projects, the private sector also saw its access to lending and investment shrivel. The result was, as the local saying has it , that ‘the public advances and the private retreats’. The recession also ended any prospect of privatising the banks and generally opening up China’s financial sector. China’s state run banking sector might be less efficient than it could be; but unlike its free market equivalent it never caused a collapse in the global economy.

Beijing has been careful not to frame its rediscovery of the state in terms of a turn to the left, leaving that to Bo. Bo’s downfall, China’s Right and its supporters now argue, provides the perfect opportunity to ditch state capitalism along with him, a point of view summed up by former Bank of China advisor Li Dekui who recently told Bloomberg news that instead of mass mobilization, national policy should focus on deregulating financial markets.

Beijing seems to be on board with the first part of that equation. But what comes through from the way it has built a story around the Bo affair is that it does not, at this point, seem willing to make any major reversals in the direction of policy. In fact, over the next five years it is embarking on what has been described as the largest social welfare project in human history, involving massive increases in spending on housing, education and health insurance.

There’s a debate to be had about whether social democracy with Chinese characteristics can be made to work. The Party may be flirting with deepening public anger by raising expectations it cannot meet, especially if the cause of these expectations not being met is corruption within the Party structure. But if it does work, redistributive spending will become embedded in the Party’s wider ‘stability management’ strategy, and, perhaps, become a bedrock component of any future democratic order that might emerge.

During his Southern Tour of 1992, Deng Xiaoping warned the Party to ‘guard against the Right and oppose the Left.’ Bo’s downfall is certainly an example of opposing the left. But in removing the most divisive and disruptive figure associated with China’s statist shift, the Party may also have given itself an excellent opportunity to guard against the right.

Jamie Kenny (@jkbloodtreasure) is a writer specialising in China. He blogs at Blood & Treasure. This article follows his earlier analysis of the structural context for the Bo saga. 


About this article

Published on 29 April, 2012
By Jamie Kenny