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Bo Xilai's Real Crime

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Bo Xilai was indicted on charges of extortion, bribery, and abusing power today, and he will soon be put on trial, according to officials at the court in Shandong province where the charges were filed. Bo’s sentence could range from 15–20 years in prison to a suspended death sentence, analysts say, but his trial will be little more than a show—the verdict will already have been negotiated by Communist Party officials away from the spotlight.

Bo’s spectacular fall from grace came when he was at the peak of his influence and power. As the Party secretary of Chongqing province, Bo presided over a period of high growth, enriching himself and his family and friends and also turning Chongqing into one of China’s booming provinces. All that changed when his police chief fled to a nearby American consulate and spilled the beans on Bo’s corruption and his wife’s murder of Neil Heywood, a British businessman.

Bo might have been more corrupt than the average Chinese Communist Party official, but this was not his real crime. Bo was charismatic, comfortable in front of crowds, and well liked by many Chongqing residents. He was ambitious, and “he rubbed against the grain of consensus decision-making,” Fareed Zakaria wrote for Time in May. But he also “represented the ‘new left,’ an ideological movement that emphasized social and cultural solidarity, the power of the state and other populist issues.” Bo’s campaign of “sing red, strike black” was a sort of new Maoism, a combination of a strong cultural identity, populist policies, and a personal leadership cult, with Bo at the top. He positioned himself with a strong loyal following and used his personal power to aim for national glory. This threatened the Party, which couldn’t stand for independent sources of influence that undermined the carefully balanced, consensus-style leadership in Beijing. Bo was dangerous, and the Party brought him down when it had a chance.

“There are other would-be leaders—military nationalists, economic liberals, even more-full-throated populists—who are debating China’s future furiously, though privately, in Beijing and Shanghai,” Fareed continued. They have been warned by Bo’s downfall: this is what happens if you threaten the delicate balance of power at the top of the Communist Party.

[Bo Xilai at the opening session of the National People’s Congress in March 2012, courtesy Getty Images]

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