Bo Xilai’s Campaign for the Standing Committee and the Future of Chinese Politicking

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 21

Dueling Provincial Party Secretaries Bo Xilai (L) and Wang Yang (R)

In late June 2011, Henry Kissinger made a trip to Chongqing and allegedly told his flamboyant host Bo Xilai, the 63 year-old Party Secretary of the city, “As an intellectual visiting Chongqing, I saw the vision for the future by the Chinese leaders. I am shaken by the vitality of the city” (Chongqing Online, September 10). No wonder Kissinger was “shaken” by what he saw during his brief visit to Chongqing. He met with corporate representatives from Microsoft, E-Bay, Pepsi-cola, Hewlett-Packard, GE, Cisco, Acer and Ford. He was told one out of three laptops in the world is now assembled in Chongqing. The China-U.S. business connection is strong in Chongqing. There are 500 U.S. companies now operating in the city where the annual trade volume between Chongqing and the United States is $1.1 billion. 

Perhaps more interestingly, Kissinger was exposed to nearly all of the “innovative” highlights of Bo Xilai’s work in Chongqing. He visited the rent-controlled complexes in Chongqing. Huang Qifan, the mayor of the city, told Kissinger that the city government had spent $15.8 billion (of which 1/3 was raised by the city and 2/3 from the major banks of China) on building the apartment complexes for individuals such as recent college graduates, low-income residents and migrant workers. The average rent for an apartment of 50 square meters is about 500 RMB ($79) per month, approximately one sixth of the average renter’s income

Kissinger also was invited as a special guest to the opening ceremony of the city’s concert series of red songs. Bo lectured Kissinger on why he insists on people singing red songs. “A city’s development hinges on both physical and spiritual strength. If people go to the taverns after work they cannot really dedicate to their work in a united way and it will affect economic development. Chongqing is a very poor city facing many challenges. Only when we have a high morale and unite as one can we overcome all the difficulties” (Chongqing Online, September 10).

The only highlight Kissinger missed was the anti-mafia (dahei) exhibition, which other Chinese top leaders, including Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress Wu Bangguo, Vice President and CCP Deputy Secretary General Xi Jinping and Minister of Organization Li Yuanchao were all invited to see. Bo’s unprecedented anti-mafia campaign has resulted in the execution of a few corrupt officials and gang leaders, the jailing of several thousands, the trial and conviction of a famous lawyer (Li Zhuang) and the confiscation of large sum of cash and huge quantity of merchandise. The CCP leadership has given Bo praise for his success in implementing the “rule of law”, which has made the city much safer for residents (Chongqing Daily, April 19, December 10, 2010; Xinhua, April 11).

Bo’s so-called quadruple-pronged “assault”, aimed at making Chongqing “a shining city upon the hill” seems to be former Minister of Commerce Bo’s tactic to obtain a higher position within the CCP. Bo is already a member of the Politburo, so the next apparent step is membership in the Standing Committee of the Politburo. It is rare however for Chinese officials to express openly their political ambition. Although Bo has never directly stated an ambition to serve on the Standing Committee, he has actively worked toward this apparent goal. Perhaps Bo’s strategy can be labeled a political campaign with “Chinese characteristics.” 

Kissinger allegedly told Bo he noticed that Xi Jinping, heir apparent to the position of the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), visited Chongqing and spent three days there right after he was “elected” to be the vice chairman of the CCP Central Military Commission. In fact, Bo Xilai has tried very hard to hook top CCP leadership into supporting his reforms in Chongqing. Zhou Yongkang was one of the first among the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee to visit Chongqing. During his visit, Zhou saw the results of Bo’s campaign pertaining to its main focuses of dahei, nationalism, household registration reform, low-rent housing and economic development. Toward the end of his visit, Zhou said Chongqing reform should be emulated by all other places in China (Chongqing Daily, November 15, 2010). A month later, Xi Jinping visited the city and offered his enthusiastic praise of Bo’s achievements in Chongqing. Other highlights include Wu Bangguo’s visit in April 2011, and Li Changchu’s congratulatory letter sent in honor of a red song concert series which opened with great fanfare in June 2011 (Chongqing Daily, July 1). 

Jia Qingling seems to be tentatively supportive. Jia did not attend the red song concert when the Bo-led Chongqing singing and dancing troupe performed in the auditorium of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing. He did, however, meet with Bo and the performers after the show. Of the nine Standing Committee members, Li Keqiang has neither visited Chongqing nor openly said anything about the Chongqing model. His reservation can be seen as holding a grudge because Bo’s assistants have on occasion been blunt about Bo’s aspirations for Li’s future job [1]. Also, He Guoqiang has remained silent about Bo’s achievements, which is understandable because he was Chongqing’s party boss from 1999 to 2002. Moreover, neither Hu Jintao nor Wen Jiabao have associated themselves with Bo and his Chongqing Model. Nonetheless, Bo’s success in winning the backing of five out of nine Standing Committee members to support his Chongqing Model is no small feat. 

Chongqing’s publicity machine has done a lot to facilitate Bo’s political quest. Reporting of top leadership’s visits to Chongqing has been more detailed and glowing than the typical Xinhua report. Beyond the Politburo Standing Committee and Mr. Kissinger, the city has tried to lure both international and domestic dignitaries to visit Chongqing. Many famous artists have been invited to perform, and Chongqing has hosted numerous international conferences. The city also has attempted to gain the support of public scholars by convening forums and meetings on the Chongqing model (For example, Guangming Daily, August 9). Cui Zhiyuan, a former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and current professor at Tsinghua University, was made a municipal government official. He has written many articles in support of the Chongqing Model (, November 3). Li Xiguang, former reporter, coauthor of the book Behind the Demonization of China and Tsinghua professor, is now an adjunct professor at the Southwestern University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing and may provide public relations advice to Bo’s group (For example, ”Seeing the Yan’an Spirit in Chongqing,” Outlook Magazine, January 17). 

Although Bo’s campaign has brought much positive feedback, not every response has been positive. There is a fierce, yet unacknowledged, war of words between Bo and 56 year-old Wang Yang. Yang is one of Bo’s predecessors in Chongqing (2005-2007) and is the current Party boss of Guangdong province, the province which has led the nation in GDP growth for more than two decades. 

This war of words manifested itself on many occasions this past summer. On June 26, at a Party member meeting, Wang Yang said increasing the awareness of an impending crisis is much more important than glorifying governing achievements, which was a reference to Bo’s tendency to engage in self-eulogy (Southern Daily, June 27). On July 4, during an online chat with netizens, Wang reportedly said if Party leaders could screw over the broad masses, the latter could do the same to the leaders, which was interpreted as a rebuke of the arrest of a netizen who had cursed the Chongqing leadership in an online chat room (Xinhua, July 4). 

In an oblique reference to Chongqing’s dahei campaign at the provincial Party Congress session on July 12, Wang said anti-corruption measures cannot succeed in a mobilized political campaign. He further remarked that leaders should refrain from seeking instant returns and spotlight. He noted, however, that leaders need to have a vision and perform according to the best of their capability and within the constraint of available resources. 

Lastly, Wang took a shot at Bo Xilai’s much trumpeted call to clearly and unequivocally decide how to divide the cake (equitable distribution of wealth) before the cake is baked (development). He said baking a larger cake is still the top priority. Growing the cake is much more important than dividing the cake, as Wang slyly noted “[Bo’s emphasis] is not something original but emphasizing it is new at this particular moment” (, July 13).

This “particular moment” may refer to what appears to be Bo Xilai’s attack of the “Guangdong Model." On July 3, during his meeting with Liu Changle, board chairman of Phoenix Television, Bo said, contrary to places where division of the cake comes after baking the cake, Chongqing opts to divide the cake before baking it (, July 4). On July 10, at an agribusiness forum, Bo declared that Chongqing will not wait until the higher stage of development to work toward the equitable distribution of wealth.. Bo Xilai also declared that if the “Three Differences”—between the rich and the poor; the urban and rural; and regional—could not be overcome in any locale where the CCP has only accomplished “One Represent” (modern productive force) and failed in the other “Two Represents” (the majority of the people and the advanced culture) (Chongqing Daily, July 17) [2]. 

Five days later, the Party Committee of Chongqing adopted the resolution on reducing the three differences and achieving common wealth. The goals are quantitative and lofty, including: reducing the gini coefficient index from about 0.45 to 0.35 (Guangdong is at 0.65), creating 3.3 million new jobs, licensing 1.5 million small businesses, converting 5 million farmers into urban residents, taking care of 2 million senior citizens who live alone and building 40 million square meters of low-rent housing (Chongqing Daily, July 23). 

While the two camps had remained relatively silent since the summer, Wang Yang broke the “ceasefire” in a speech on improving the welfare of the people in Guangzhou on October 9. Wang said improving the welfare of the people requires the combination of doing everything possible to satisfy the demand of the people and taking the national and provincial circumstances into consideration. He noted that campaigning was not the way to responsibly address the long-term and fundamental livelihood interests of the people (Guangzhou Daily, October 10).

Bo Xilai’s unprecedented politicking and Wang Yang’s open counteroffensive have established new political dynamic in China, and revealed fractures beneath the surface. It is unclear and may be too early to say if Bo Xilai and Wang Yang represent two interest groups or political forces in China, but it would appear that Chinese scholars and social commentators are lining up behind one or the other (Li Cheng, “China’s Team of Rivals,” Foreign Policy, March 1, 2009). People with more liberal ideas are supporting Wang Yang and those who identify with the “New Left” and Maoists are vociferous in their support of Bo. The public emergence of such factions representing different interests of the society—rather than different ideological leanings—may prove a good development for the future of China’s politics. 

For China watchers, it is exhilarating to see what usually happens behind the high walls of Zhongnanhai come out in the open. Every developing and developed nation has to balance development with social justice, and China is no exception. To have vigorous debate among decision makers on this issue is necessary and to take it to the people in the style of a political campaign is a must in any open society. Bo Xilai and Wang Yang deserve credit for taking their policy differences seriously and appealing to the people for support. 

If China’s leadership change is subject to popularity test, Bo may easily win the contest as he is more populist, charismatic and skillful. Popularity, however, does not always imply rationality or sustainability. To many, Bo’s Chongqing Model is not sustainable, and it reminds many of the CCP’s governing at its worst: manipulation of the rule of law and the embrace of a rigid ideology. What sets Chongqing apart from Mao’s China, however, is its relentless quest for Western technology, capital and business, which all requires a real market economy supported by rule of law and open flow of information. It remains to be seen whether Bo is serious about his tactic in Chongqing and is determined to replicate it nationwideif given the platform—or if he simply is using the Chongqing Model as the springboard for his ambition. 

Kissinger saw some kind of future for China in Chongqing. His comments however echoed Lincoln Steffens sentiments about the Soviet Union in 1919—"I have seen the future and it works"—raising the question about how long that future will linger. Even if it is too early to evaluate Bo’s legacy in Chongqing, his campaign for the Standing Committee has dragged Chinese politics out of the backroom and into the spotlight. Perhaps Bo has revealed the potential for open debate, bold contest and public outreach for support in China.



1.     Personal Interview, August 31, 2011

2.     The “Three Represents” are retired CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin’s contribution to the CCP canon and became official at the 16th Party Congress in 2002.