Red Songs, Black Boxes and the Tale of Bo Xilai

The likeness of Bo Xilai, in red, adorns the "Abode of Chaos" in France. (Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr)

The fall of Bo Xilai, the flamboyant and controversial Chongqing leader, qualifies as one of the big Chinese news stories of 2012. It does so first because it may signal the end of the short strange career of the so-called “Chongqing Model” associated with him.  This is a hard-to-pin-down catchall term for a cluster of policies and campaigns Bo introduced while in charge of the city.  The “model” involves a mixture of appeals to Mao era ideals of social equality, innovations in urban planning, dramatic moves against figures accused of being part of organized crime syndicates, and strategic use of symbols from the revolutionary past.  It may be best known for the mass singing of “red songs” that Bo promoted in Chongqing last year, which started a widespread trend.

In addition, and perhaps more importantly, Bo’s ouster removes any lingering doubt on a key question: whether fissures within the Chinese political elite continue to be significant.  The current leadership group has been striving for years to convince audiences at home and abroad that its members are all on the same page.  Factional divides are seen as anathema to this stability-obsessed group, whose members blame competition and tension among party leaders for wreaking havoc on the country in the Mao years and providing the space for the massive multi-class and multi-locale protest movement of 1989 to grow.  But the steps taken against Bo, who has been associated with “left” and “conservative” (in China, oddly, the two can go together) and “princeling” (his father was a key figure in an earlier generation of officials) factions, provide clear evidence of the persistence of various kinds of divides — even if it turns out that, by the time he fell, Bo had so few supporters left in the inner circle that his fall was the result of a unanimous decision by a core group of top leaders.

In light of this, it’s no surprise that, within hours of word breaking that Bo had been stripped of his post as Chongqing’s Party Secretary, the development was being dissected by every major international news organization.  And no surprise that the news was spawning copious comments, scores of rumors, and plenty of jokes on the Chinese internet, mostly via short posts on Weibo, the Twitter-like site that, despite efforts by government censors to neuter it, serves as the closest thing to a freewheeling PRC public sphere.

From the start, there was plenty of agreement among analysts regarding some basic aspects of the situation, but also variation among commentators on the question of how much weight to give to specific factors. Some highlighted the importance of enduring divides within China’s elite rooted in ideology, personality, and/or ties to particular locales.  These commentators carefully parsed the patronage ties that unite and divide members of China’s elite.

Other analysts zeroed in on the extent to which Bo’s fall should be seen as a referendum on his dramatic public style of political campaigning, which sometimes seemed more in step with a Western or Taiwanese than a mainland Chinese political style.

Still others, building on comments Wen Jiabao had just made about the Cultural Revolution before Bo fell, emphasized the need to see the move against the Chongqing leader as a sign of a desire within the Communist Party’s top tier to distance themselves from his expressions of nostalgia for aspects of the Mao era.

Nearly all commentators also mentioned the significance of another factor.  This was the embarrassment stories related to Bo had generated in recent years and even more so recent weeks.  They pointed to reports of his son’s activities abroad and members of his family’s allegedly extravagant lifestyles.  And above all, they drew attention to the episode involving his disgraced protégés, Wang Lijun, who disappeared for a time into the American consulate in Chengdu (a city in the same part of the country as Chongqing).

I’ll leave it to those with better sources within the Chinese elite to work out as best they can how these different elements intertwined, and to uncover the details (if they can) of when exactly the party’s elite decided to close ranks against Bo, which leaders pushed hardest for him to be ostracized, and which (if any) tried to stop him from being purged.  All I will note here are some things the Bo Xilai tale, as a news story, tells us about the curious nature of contemporary Chinese elite politics and the way that the international press covers it.

Foreign Reporters at the Ready

I should note at the outset that these comments are inspired in part by a series of coincidences that have made me more aware and attuned than I usually am to how members of the Beijing foreign press corps operate.  I happened to see a lot of them at close range in the capital two weeks ago, when I was in Beijing briefly to take part in a literary festival held at Capital M, a restaurant near Tiananmen Square.  I ended up spending a lot of time at Capital M and my time there coincided with the holding of the National People’s Congress.  This is an annual event that tends to be singularly lacking in drama, yet has to be covered by foreign journalists.  Due in part to Capital M’s proximity to the site of the NPC meetings, the restaurant served as a main watering hole, eating venue, and general gathering place for international reporters struggling to wring stories out of this fairly prosaic state ritual.  In light of this, as well as the fact that the literary festival panel I was on also included three very fine journalists (Evan Osnos, Christina Larason, and Michelle Dammon Loyalka), the fact that I had planned to meet up with some other journalists I’ve come to know, and the fact that I ended up being interviewed by Bloomberg TV and NPR during my visit meant I was part of a lot of conversations with reporters and ended up, inevitably, overhearing some others at nearby tables.

One thing that the takedown of Bo, which occurred after I’d returned to the United States, illustrates to me about the press corps is that the best foreign reporters need to develop a very special sort of multitasking skill.  On the one hand, they have to cover the stories the Chinese government insists are important (e.g., the NPC meetings) and the stories that editors at home are convinced foreign audiences can’t get enough of (in the case of the U.S., articles that deal with protest or highlight things that are scary about China, from rising popular nationalism to military expansion, or suggest that the Chinese people are embracing American fashions or ideas). While doing this, though, they have to try to prepare to report on other kinds of stories that don’t fall into either category, yet they know, often from monitoring the rumors circulating in actual conversations and digitally on Weibo, are percolating under the surface.  While I was in Beijing, I was part or aware of plenty of conversations in which journalists and other local trackers of Chinese politics talked about what they had heard or dug up concerning or were simply thinking about Bo Xilai.

The pay-off for this particular preparation to tell a story that wasn’t yet officially a major story came when Bo finally fell, as many had expected he would as soon as the Wang Lijun scandal broke.  Good accounts of his fate could be and were filed almost instantly. Consider this timeline.  Bo’s fall took place on March 15 Beijing time.  (The irony of a powerful man being stabbed in the back by one-time comrades on the “Ides of March” was noted by more than one foreign commentator; the fact that the Chinese authorities have designated March 15 as “Consumer Rights Day” was worked into a Weibo joke, which mocked Bo as someone whose “Chongqing model” was actually a shoddy product.)  This meant it was still March 14 in North America when his removal from office was announced.  And yet, Louisa Lim of NPR (one of a variety of reporters at the ready) could file a smart overview of the situation quickly enough for it to run on “Morning Edition” in the early hours of North America’s Ides of March.  The ability to do this quickly was not a case of a story being written in advance and then being able to air (the way that a prefab obituary can be slotted into the morning issue of a paper the day after a celebrity dies), but the weeks of speculation about his fate she and other reporters had engaged in did mean that even though Bo’s name was not a household one yet outside of China, they could file very quickly when the anticipated falling of the ax took place.

Waiting for the Plane to Crash

Another thing the Bo Xilai story reveals is the fact that there continues to be something surreal about trying to keep up with Chinese high politics.  This is due in part to the “black box” nature of how decisions are made (that term, often associated with airplanes that go down, seems a very apt one, as we won’t know all the details about the party’s inner working until it crashes, something that will surely eventually happen but not necessarily anytime soon).  The surreal side of Chinese politics is further magnified by a strange pattern of timing that decouples big official events from release of dramatic information.

It might seem that, even in a non-democratic system, a leadership transition, such as the one coming up in the fall, would be worked out and announced at a gathering of the country’s most powerful figures.  Not so with China, as the fact that Xi Jinping would assume the positions soon to be vacated by Hu Jintao was worked out well ahead of the NPC meetings, and he went to Washington, D.C. and other foreign capitals on his first major international trip as top leader-in-waiting weeks before the gathering took place.  This added to the challenge foreign reporters faced in trying to wring newsworthy content out of this year’s NPC.  A story about Xi being anointed as Hu’s successor would have been juicy, but it was by then old news, and to run it during the NPC would have been anticlimactic to say the least.  If Xi’s ascent was solidified too soon to make for a good NPC news story, Bo’s descent, though likely to have been decided upon at some point during behind the scenes discussions at the NPC or the simultaneous National People's Political Consultative Congress, was not actually announced until after both of the state rituals had concluded.  In the oddly paced world of Chinese politics, events such as the NPC are only supposed to produce good news, so Bo’s disgrace could not be made public while the meetings were in session.

Finally, there is a different sort of irony worth noting embedded in the Bo Xilai story, which relates to the government’s effort to cast it as proof that the Chinese leadership is determined to keep the country moving in a forward trajectory and putting the past behind it.  This notion of a desire to leave the past behind was flagged in Wen’s warning of the dangers of a return to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution era.  Hu and Wen and their successors would like to convince the world and the Chinese people that the China of today is not the China of decades ago, and any person or movement that has the potential to take the country backward rather than forward must be stopped.  And yet, whatever Bo and his Chongqing model stand or stood for, there was much about the Ides of March purge that underscored the degree to which, for all the social and cultural and economic changes of recent decades, some important things about Chinese high politics have not been altered or updated.

This was underscored on Weibo in posts that compared Bo’s downfall to that of the Gang of Four — a purge that is often described as ending the Cultural Revolution but was also shaped by its political grammar.  What’s happening now isn’t just like what happened then.  One reason for this is the simple existence of Weibo, which is altering many parts of the political landscape, placing new pressures on Chinese leaders and helping information that once would have been kept secret to spread. Still, bringing up that analogy, even though overstretched, reminds us that there is something more old-fashioned than new-fangled about the opaqueness of the processes that are being used to determine who is in and who is out as the next set of leading representatives of the newest new China gets finalized.  The architecture of some Chinese cities looks as futuristic as can be, but the architecture of Chinese governing structures was created from blueprints left over from a bygone age.

About the Author

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Jeffrey Wasserstrom is author of China in the 21st Century (2010) and co-editor of Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (2012). He is an Asia Society Associate Fellow.