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Bo Xilai: Rise and Fall



11 September 2013

It is one of the tritest statements about politics in China, one sometimes heard from the mouths of retired senior diplomats: 'all the Communist Party of China cares about is power.' Things like this make it clear that whatever the key qualities that senior diplomats in most cultures need, some capacity for deeper questioning and reflection is not amongst them.

Functionally, of course, the statement is right. The Communist Party is focused on power, and regards a monopoly on power as its key objective. But there are many different kinds of power, and many different ways to exercise it. And for a perfect illustration of this, the fall and sentencing of Bo Xilai offers great insights.

Destined for politics
Had there been a menu of the things that the most perfectly placed leader of the Communist Party needed in the second decade of the twenty first century to be promoted and successful, then Bo had it: sterling elite family links in a highly tribal and networked system through his father, Bo Yibo, one of the great founding immortals; excellent provincial leadership records, in both Liaoning and then Chongqing, in a system where the road to Beijing lies through China's provinces; great charisma and communicative ability, shown in the way he managed to impress visiting foreign dignitaries and in the disgruntled sounds that came from some members of the public after his fall.

But beyond all these, Bo had something much more important, and much rarer in Chinese modern politics: a political vision which differentiated him from his colleagues. It was this, perhaps more than anything else, that meant when they had the weapons to attack, his enemies, who were numerous and highly threatened by his individualistic behaviour, could go for the kill.

Modern China is blighted by a great contradiction. It is in one moment both rich and poor. This has been widely acknowledged, both inside and outside the country. Its status as a rich poor country creates great challenges for policy makers and politicians. It is one they have been addressing through creating more access to public goods, more empowerment policies through investment in education and poverty relief, and more focus on addressing the urban and rural divide. Bo's prescription however was a uniquely popularist one. His social housing campaign in Chongqing was the most sustained effort to allow citizens in a city in China to have a realistic shot at being homeowners. He looked precariously close to threatening some immense areas of vested interest in the construction sector, and his anti-mafia campaign, while brutal and controversial, had an element that appealed to a popularist sense of social justice. At least this time, many thought, a government leader was taking on people who were dabbling in their own form of violence rather than picking on migrants and rural protestors.

Bo made policy attack on inequality part of his persona in Chongqing, and in effect turned the tables on those who had lobbied for him to be sent there in 2007 as a means to sideline him. He made national and international headlines, and, it should be remembered, secured vociferous support from visiting national leaders, amongst them a highly enthusiastic Xi Jinping who went to Chongqing in 2010 and gave the city a ringing endorsement - and, by association, Bo's style of leadership.

For all the court drama and dark intrigue on show in Jinan in August, the criminal charges that were brought against Bo cannot deflect from the power issues above. Power in China is not the uniform, never-changing monolithic entity or quality that diplomats lazily refer to - but something like a form of energy, or a currency, which can mutate, change, and dissipate in ways which are often hard, and sometimes even impossible, to understand.

Downfall
The final image of Bo is of a man allowed a voice one final time to defend himself on the narrow criminal charges. It was also of someone who knew that on the bigger political issues he had been brought down by, there was no point in trying to speak out. His political death sentence had been delivered during this fall from grace the year before. Someone weaned, nurtured, and trained to exercise power had what they most desired and felt suited for taken away when it was just within their reach. Since then, there was little else to do but tidy up. And that, in Jinan, is precisely what happened.