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Bo Xilai—Too Popular?

The Bo Xilai saga gripping China is now making waves in London as well. According to Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times, the city’s tabloids are exhibiting an unprecedented level of interest in Chinese politics, splashing the story across their front pages:

Of course it is not so much the power struggle at the top of the Communist Party that interests them. Rather it is the salacious details of the case: a murdered old Harrovian in a hotel room in China; hints of a sex scandal; allegations of  corruption; a son who went to Balliol College, Oxford and enjoyed parties and fast cars.

He goes on to note that Bo’s ouster has serious ramifications beyond tabloid appeal. Rachman, who is based in London, recounts a dinner he attended with a group of Chinese academics and journalists (a group, Rachman stresses, that is not overly fond of the former Chongqing chief). Although none of the guests were sure of the exact reason for Bo’s expulsion from the party, they did agree that his popularity was real and widespread:

[A]s one man put it to me – “Chongqing is the only Chinese city I’ve ever visited, where all the taxi-drivers loved the guy in charge.” Bo was regarded as somebody who was trying to improve living standards for the poor by providing better social services – and who was cracking down on the rich and the corrupt. Even the famous use of Maoist slogans – which sent shivers down the spine of many Chinese intellectuals – was interpreted as a nod towards a more egalitarian age.

While it is clear Bo was a stark departure from typically publicity-shy top Chinese officials, what most intrigued Rachman’s interlocutors was “whether there was (and is) a broader ideological and power struggle going on within the Communist Party.” Until recently the Chinese government had maintained the appearance of unity. But as the Bo scandal continues to unfold, and as the country moves closer to its once-in-a-decade leadership transition, that facade is crumbling. The coming months should be extremely revealing.

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  • Luke Lea

    This is the most worrisome thing I’ve seen lately: “owing to the encouragement of ex-president Jiang Zemin and ex-vice president Zeng Qinghong — both of whom played a pivotal role in Xi’s elevation at the 17th Party Congress . . .”

    In other words the next Chairman of the Party — the number one guy with the real power in China , not to be confused with the Premier who is in charge of routine day-to-day administration — is from the hard-line brutalist faction. And just two years ago he was a flattering admirer of Bo’s according to this well-sourced piece.

    These are they guys who torture and murder their opponents.

    The future of democratic reform in China does not look bright therefore if Xi is installed. We should not be taken in by his recent PR photo-op tour of the US.

  • Kansas Scott

    It may have come up before but every time I read about Bo I can’t help thinking of Huey Long in the 1930’s.

    Although a lot of Huey’s popularity rose out of the financial chaos of the Depression, Bo’s popularity seems to have arisen out of an equally chaotic economic change, albeit an economy rapidly growing.

    Plus, Huey and Bo are both cool names.

  • Luke Lea

    I say huey to Bo!

  • http://None Jerry Arnold

    Populism as a sop to the poor always plays well. Them (rich, corrupt thieves) against us (poor but honest real people) has been a theme of populist politics as far back as the Greeks. It’s quick and easy and lends itself well to short, snappy sloganeering. Think “Free silver” or “Fair tax rates”. My guess is that Bo is as cynical as Huey ever was and I would not be surprised to see him end up just like Huey did. The powers that be in Beijing certainly won’t care.

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