Bo who? Not content to oust Bo Xilai from power, the Chinese Communist Party has dusted off its copy of 1984 as it orchestrates a campaign to whitewash any trace of the former chief of Chongqing. Exhibits that honored Bo and outlined his achievements have been shut down. Chongqing television stations have ceased airing commercial-free Maoist propaganda and begun showing advertisements. Billboards throughout the city that had once displayed Bo’s favorite slogans, such as “Safe Chongqing”, have been replaced by benign images of trees and skyscrapers. In boardrooms of state-owned enterprises Bo’s portraits have been removed.Bo’s retro-Communism is part of what alarmed modernizing Party officials; ironically, nothing says Mao more than airbrushing a fallen political figure from the collective memory. The New York Times explains:
[T]he party’s sudden vilification of Mr. Bo and his once-lauded projects has laid bare its thin ideological marrow. After years of instructing citizens to revere Mr. Bo, the party has aggravated public cynicism by orchestrating his hasty downfall.“People here just don’t trust the central government,” said a local magazine journalist, who described the orders from editors to stop reporting on Mr. Bo’s accomplishments. “Now they’re telling us Bo’s a bad guy. But no government official is innocent. At least we know our lives got better after he came.”
There are also practical ramifications for Chongqing to confront. Bo championed the development of state-owned enterprises; his successor, Zhang Dejiang, appears more open to expanding the private sector. Local business leaders, however, are treading cautiously. With so much uncertainty hanging over the country as it prepares for only the second organized transfer of power in Party history, nobody is sure whether Zhang is merely a placeholder or there for the long run.Bo is a hard act to follow. Party apparatchiks and faceless placeholders can take down as many billboards as they want but cannot so easily remove the impressions, favorable and otherwise, that Bo left on the hearts and minds of ordinary Chongqing residents. Bo’s message and charisma resonated throughout the city—by all accounts he was genuinely liked, one of the few top Chinese officials with real popular support. Indeed, that appeal was part of what made him such a scary figure to other Party members, who are more adept at technocratic management than populist gestures. Others in Chongqing hated and feared him for the dangerous demagogue that he was. The immediate threat posed by Bo climbing to the upper echelons of power may be gone, but his purge has left the Party with more questions than answers.Bo was by no means a democrat, but his support reveals a hunger in China for political leaders who speak to the masses and generate a personal connection with the people they rule. It is getting harder to rule China without democratic legitimacy and popular support: that is the truth that the Party needs to absorb as it continues to erase all traces of Bo Xilai from public view.