Beijing’s Post-Bo Xilai Loyalty Drive Could Blunt Calls for Reform

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 7

Premier Wen Jiabao Waving Goodbye to the Press and, Perhaps, Reform

The shock downfall of Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai has shattered the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) façade of unity and stability. The past fortnight has witnessed a plethora of rumors about a failed coup d’etat supposedly masterminded by Bo in conjunction with Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member Zhou Yongkang, a former party boss of Sichuan who has close links with the charismatic princeling. Other wild stories claimed that Bo had tried to boost his standing within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by promoting ties with the Chengdu Military Region. Also enjoying massive circulation in China’s cyberspace are unconfirmed reports that Bo had with the help of former Chongqing Police chief Wang Lijun tried to bug the conversations of several PBSC members (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], March 22; Bloomberg News, March 21). While the great majority of these tales and innuendo seem to be off the mark, they do confirm serious ills in China’s body politic.

This is despite efforts by the leadership under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to shore up stability in the run-up to the 18th CCP Congress, which will witness a wholesale changing of the guard. First, the apparent unity among the CCP’s disparate cliques is skin-deep and the age-old “anti-corruption card” is still the weapon of choice in factional skullduggery and back-stabbing. Second, military involvements in the party’s internal schisms cannot be ruled out. Despite the sores exposed by Bo’s shenanigans, it is doubtful whether the party elite will heed Premier Wen’s repeated calls for genuine political reform.

An internal party paper, which was circulated among cadres after Bo’s ouster from his Chongqing job, partially has confirmed suggestions that the 62-year-old princeling is being investigated for alleged “economic crimes.” The document said Bo relieved his protégé Wang Lijun—once known as a “national anti-triad hero”—of his police duties after being told that Wang’s underlings were looking into the corruption-related activities of his close kin (Associated Press, March 20; New York Times, March 19). Tension between Bo and Wang became so intense that Wang, who was himself under investigation for offenses he allegedly committed when he was a police officer in Liaoning Province, tried to seek political asylum at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu on February 6 (“Hu Jintao Draws Blood with the Wang Lijun Scandal,” China Brief, March 2). Hong Kong papers have reported Bo was in cahoots with the powerful PBSC member Zhou, who oversees the nation’s law enforcement and internal security apparatus. Moreover, one of Zhou’s relatives, who is a millionaire businessman in Chongqing, evidently enjoyed the Bo’s patronage (Apple Daily [Hong Kong] March 23). That Bo sought the support of the PLA was attested to by the fact that during an inspection trip to Yunnan Province in early February, he paid a visit to the 14th Army, which was founded by his late father, party elder Bo Yibo. Moreover, in his capacity as Chongqing party chief, Bo has made generous donations to upgrade the equipment and welfare benefits of the Chengdu Military Region, which oversees areas including Chongqing, Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet (Apple Daily, March 20; Frontline Monthly [Hong Kong], March 16; Yunnan Daily, February 11).

It is little wonder that both in the run-up to and after Bo’s dismissal, President and Central Military Commission (CMC) Chairman Hu and his senior colleagues have made moves to ensure the loyalty of military as well as civilian units. The PLA General Political Department has since mid-February started a campaign entitled “Put emphasis on politics, pay heed to the national situation, and observe discipline.” The gist of this ideological movement is that officers and soldiers must “maintain the utmost unison in thought, politics and action with the party central authorities, the CMC and Chairman Hu” (People’s Net, March 21; PLA Daily, February 17). At the same time, PLA units at the headquarters and regional levels are undergoing a propaganda exercise entitled “We must inherit Lei Feng’s gun.” In the 1950s, Mao Zedong lionized the “proletariat paragon” Lei Feng for his unquestioning loyalty to the party central authorities. According to CMC Vice Chairman General Xu Caihou, CMC Chairman Hu has instructed officers “to push forward the Lei Feng spirit with a strong sense of political responsibility and a high degree of self-consciousness” (PLA Daily, March 18; [Beijing], February 29).

In a recent talk to mid-level cadres, Politburo member and CCP Organization Chief Li Yuanchao urged officials to “seriously implement all regulations regarding clean government and discipline.” Li warned “Cadres must under all circumstances be able to uphold their sense of morality, maintain good behavior, and not succumb to corruption” (Ming Pao, March 21; China News Service, March 20). Moreover, in a long article in the party’s theoretical journal Seeking Truth, Vice President Xi Jinping called upon cadres to “safeguard the purity of the party,” elaborating that “We must resolutely stop and combat any wrong political tendencies that veer from the party’s basic lines” and “Leading cadres must resolutely uphold the party’s principles, charter, goals and policies.” (Qiushi, March 16; Xinhua, March 17). The timing suggests these homilies were issued to rein in the centrifugal forces exposed by the Bi Xilai affair.

Will Bo’s political demise—and the blow to his much-noted campaign to resuscitate Maoism—spell a bonanza for political reform? After all, news about Bo having been stripped of his Chongqing post came just one day after Premier Wen raised alarm bells about the “reappearance of the Cultural Revolution.” Speaking at the international conference at the close of the National People’s Congress (NPC), Wen underscored the imperative of political reform after asking the Chongqing party leadership to “reflect deeply” on the Wang Lijun affair (Xinhua, March 14). In the ensuing weeks, many signs pointing to possible ideological liberalization have emerged. For example, immediately after Bo’s disgrace, the Utopia website (, which is China’s most popular quasi-Maoist media, was closed down for a few days (Ming Pao, March 19; Radio Free Asia, March 16). More significantly, a number of liberal cadres have circulated reports that Wen has again called for a “re-examination of June 4.” This is a reference to the premier’s view that the CCP should overturn its verdict that the pro-democracy movement of 1989 was a “counter-revolutionary turmoil.” Wen also noted full compensation must be paid to the relatives of students killed during the Tiananmen Square incident. Several Western and Hong Kong media outlets reported last week that and a couple of other popular search engines had for a day or two lifted their long-standing restrictions on taboo words such as the “June 4 incident.” Even pictures and short videos showing students and Beijing residents being gunned down near Tiananmen Square were made available to Chinese netizens (CableTV News Hong Kong, March 23; Financial Times, March 23).

Moreover, major Beijing-based state media have continued to publish pieces in support of a “deeper” stage of political reform. For example, the People’s Daily ran a commentary on March 22 titled “We should not lose any opportunity to breach the fortress [of reform] and to overcome difficulties.” The article admitted that signs of “a lack of balance, insufficient coordination and unsustainability” had hit different aspects of China’s economic and political life. “Deepening reform is a strategy that will affect all aspects of the body politic,” the commentary noted. This veritable call to arms echoed a much-noticed earlier People’s Daily piece which said “while reform carries risks, failure to reform will bring about dangers” to the political system (People’s Daily, February 22).

In an interview with Hong Kong media, noted reformer and BeijingUniversity jurist He Weifang expressed faith that political and ideological reforms championed by Premier Wen would run their course. “Premier Wen really meant when he said,” noted Professor He (Ming Pao, March 24). Doubts remain, however, as to whether the numerous calls for unreserved loyalty to the party as well as uniformity of thinking made by senior cadres might militate against the spirit of liberalization. For example, the PLA Daily breathed new life into Mao Zedong’s famous 1937 article entitled “In Opposition to Liberalism.” The paper noted in a commentary last week that “each party member and cadre should combat liberalism in a clear-cut fashion … [by] firming up their political beliefs and obeying the party’s political discipline” (Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong], March 23; PLA Daily, March 22).

Perhaps the best indicator of whether the Hu-Wen leadership is ready to embrace some form of political reform and “universal values” is whether the authorities will handle the Bo investigations according to the rule of law. The high-profile princeling is expected to keep his Politburo status until the Seventh CCP Central Committee plenum, which will likely be convened about one month before the 18th Party Congress. Despite widespread allegations and innuendo regarding the misdemeanors by Bo and his close kin, the Hu leadership has to convince the Chinese public as well as the international community that Bo-related police and judicial proceedings are being conducted in strict accordance to the law. Moreover, alleged victims of Bo’s “anti-triad movement” in 2009 and 2010, who have claimed that they were locked up and imprisoned according to the kind of “rough justice” associated with the country’s yanda (“strike hard”) tradition, should be given opportunities to seek legal redress (South China Morning Post, March 9). In light of the brief period last week when state censorship was lifted albeit only on a selective basis, the authorities should give Chinese and foreign journalists ample access in covering the intriguing Bo saga. Steps in these directions may help dispel fears that Premier Wen’s calls for liberalization once again will be buried under the age-old imperative of safeguarding unity and stability.