Bo's woes serve as warning to new-age Chinese warlords

3 October 2012

In the end, whatever struggles the Chinese Communist Party had with its better nature were trumped by the historic default position: when in a corner, always go for the jugular.

With the all-out trashing of Bo Xilai for sexual crimes, crimes of larceny and corruption, and the threatening and potentially most serious "and other crimes", the Party has shown why it remains unchallenged in its monopoly on power in the world's most populous nation. This is still the Party of Mao Zedong, where mercy is a quaint pastime when the times are good. When in doubt, leave nothing to chance and come out with all guns blazing. So it has proved with the onslaught on every aspect of Bo's character and history, going back to his days while mayor of Dalian over a decade ago.

The Party Discipline and Inspection Committee, which has been in charge of his dossier since his removal from Chongqing and suspension from the Party in March, has probably done a thorough job. With their dense networks of vested interest, shrouded in a thick mask of opacity, how many of the modern leaders of the PRC could last this sort of scrutiny? You might be able to control yourself, but you can't control your networks, and it was those that got you where you currently are. Once figures at the top are under attack, every part of their network becomes a legitimate route of attack.

Bo's case proves the point. There were two routes his opponents could have taken to ease him away from being promoted at the upcoming 18th Party Congress, now formally set for November 8 in Beijing. One was political - to demonstrate to the members of the Central Committee through lobbying that Bo was unfit for this sort of elevation. That may have been the arduous route taken had not his chief security assistant and his wife given his enemies more than enough ammunition to sink him. Then the second route became by far the easiest - personal attacks on his integrity by proxy. His inability to control his wife and his assistant were ample proof that he was unfit for higher office. The political logic of the second route, however, was not a future career festering in a quiet backwater till retirement beckoned, but absolute disgrace and character assassination. So it has proved. Many thought that the Party would be more innovative in its treatment of Bo: that it might show a high-minded indifference to him, let his case wander through the Inspection Committee and then into a long drawn-out oblivion. He was a popular local leader with some traction in the Party grassroots and the places where he had served in power, as well as some wider support among those concerned about social justice ahead of economic growth. All the same he is too maverick a figure to cohesively link to the leftists in China who want a more distinctive role for the state in addressing inequality and using some of the tools of Maoist intervention in policy to fight against what they see as the contagion of non-state business and civil society and pesky lawyers. Bo could have been quietly forgotten and dealt with separately from the murderous activities of his wife and his security right-hand man - there has not so far been any suggestion he was involved in the death of British businessman Neil Heywood last November.

In Chinese politics, though, you are still judged by the company you keep - at least in cases as high profile as this. So the Party's historic reaction to those who are seen as erring, from Lin Biao in the early 1970s, to Chen Xitong when felled as mayor of Beijing in 1996, to Chen Liangyu as head of the Party in Shanghai in 2007, is to destroy every residue of a disgraced figure's influence. As with Bo, the two (unrelated) Chens were not just blasted for corruption, but also accused of keeping a private boudoir of their chosen lovers.

Bo, because of his higher position and the more lurid details around his fall, will no doubt attract an even more sustained attack now. The lull is over, and his public accusations from the Party will mean that it will be legitimate to unleash whatever calumnies anyone likes on him. The Party had the chance to follow through on the high-sounding language of following the rule of law and dealing purely with justice, which had been spoken of by Premier Wen Jiabao earlier in the year when the case first surfaced. Instead, the Party has opted to do what served best in the past.

In Imperial times and even in the early years of Communist rule, those who defied authority often had their lives, and the lives of the relatives around them, obliterated, with all their property razed to the ground and their name wiped off the face of the earth. Bo doesn't live in such a harsh world, but there are times when the Party acts as if this is precisely the sort of outcome it might like to see. In terms of reputation, face and dignity, Bo's past and all that he might have achieved is now in the process of being levelled to the ground. Let no one ever pretend that the stakes of aspiring to power in China are still not fearsomely high. Bo, in a very modern context, has just proved that.

Kerry Brown and David Goodman are both professors of Chinese politics at the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

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