Talking Point

Fair cop?

The mysterious fall of Chongqing deputy mayor signals a power struggle

Former police kingpin and deputy mayor of Chongqing, Wang Lijun

“We haven’t entered the deep waters yet,” Wang Lijun told the New York Times last year. A few months later, Chongqing’s deputy mayor and former police chief finds himself in very deep water indeed. Up to his neck in it, in fact.

In WiC129 we warned that Wang – nicknamed ‘Robocop’ and lauded in the national press for his role in a corruption crackdown in Chongqing that saw 1,500 arrested – would have to navigate the political depths with care. The loquacious cop said he knew so too, allegedly telling friends that he was like a piece of gum, and that once his political masters got bored chewing him, they’d spit him out and he’d end up flattened under a shoe.

That proved prescient. Last week Wang was apparently under detention in Beijing. The scandal is potentially huge, offering a rare glimpse into the backroom powerplays that are characterising the lead up to the selection of China’s top political body this year.

A quick review of the events of the last two weeks…

It’s been a tumultuous few days for Wang. First the news on February 2 that he had been re-assigned from his more active duties to a lesser position. Netizens sensed immediately that something serious was happening in China’s largest municipality, although no one predicted the events of four days later, as Wang made a dash for the US consulate in Chengdu.

Once there, he was surrounded by a large group of police, many sent from across the provincial border by the Chongqing authorities. After hours of standoff, Wang left the consulate. But by now China’s weibo – the country’s Twitter-equivalent – was awash with rumour. Had Wang been seeking asylum in the US?

The first official announcement on the situation came the following day, with confirmation that Wang was on “vacation-style” leave for treatment for stress. But that night Bloomberg reported that Wang had flown to Beijing in the company of a senior official for state security. Century Weekly has since suggested that Wang is in the custody of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection – the Party organ that takes on cases of senior-level corruption. The article was soon spiked by the censors but not before the news had reached the international press.

From Robocop to runaway renegade in not much more than a week, Wang’s sudden downfall has led to all sorts of speculation, especially about its impact on the fortunes of his erstwhile boss, Bo Xilai, the powerful Party boss of Chongqing.

As we pointed out in our Talking Point in issue 131, a favoured way for political rivals to hobble one other in China is by purging their underlings. Theories about why Wang was at the US consulate have also mushroomed – one has him in negotiations with US officials about Tibetan affairs, another sees him revealing damaging information about senior political figures.

What did he say to the Americans?

They’re not saying. At a State Department briefing, spokesperson Victoria Nuland elected to stick to the facts she had at hand.

“There’s been unusual reporting about all of this,” she told journalists. “So just to reaffirm for you, that he walked out, it was his choice.”

What are the scenarios being discussed?

For anyone with an interest in conspiracy theories, this is fertile ground. WiC takes the view that the truth may never emerge about Wang’s case, and at this juncture almost all of the rumour is conjecture. But nevertheless some plausible scenarios have been widely discussed on weibo.

One interpretation is that this was an inevitable falling out between two deeply ambitious men. Both Bo and Wang are more than comfortable in the public eye, with a keen awareness of their personal images. Wang – Bo’s political junior – has also been actively courting media attention through potential book and film deals (including a ‘Godfather’ style movie about his life). These ambitions may have brought him into direct conflict with his boss. Only a couple of days before Wang’s fall, the Chongqing Daily reported a warning from Bo that “certain people” were too interested in their own “individual performance”. They would do better to focus “on work on behalf of the masses,” Bo suggested.

Another theory is that Bo was no longer happy with the anti-corruption investigations Wang was conducting.

Yet another view: his investigation by the Party’s discipline body is linked to a corruption case surrounding the police chief who took over from Wang in Tieling in Liaoning province.

Other users of weibo have posited that Wang’s visit to the consulate was really a calculated act of self-preservation. By staying there for over 24 hours (but leaving voluntarily) he turned himself into an international issue. Those taking this view tend to view Wang as the wronged party and theorise that, in the circumstances, it was a smart move. After all, since the authorities didn’t know what he might have left with the Americans, they’d have to be more cautious in handling him.

While the rumours grew, Bo showed little public sign of being fazed. He even hosted Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper during his trip to Chongqing. The imagery was lost on no one. Despite the furore, it was business as usual, as Bo welcomed the visiting dignitary.

So it’s all about Bo?

How Bo emerges from this debacle is really the crux of the matter. He’s hardly made a secret of the fact that he aspires to top political office, and has a realistic chance of making it onto the Politburo’s Standing Committee later this year – the powerful nine-person body that runs the country.

The consensus of political analysts like Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is that this year’s handover is going to be more fractious than usual.

Li points to a variety of reasons for this in a review published in the most recent edition of The Washington Quarterly.

Firstly, because of retirement age rules, at least seven of the nine Standing Committee elite will make way for newcomers this year. Importantly, it is also the first handover in which the generation of revolutionary leaders who served under Mao is no longer represented. Nor is there an obvious “paramount leader” on the scene in the style of Deng Xiaoping (even after his formal retirement from office, Deng’s personal authority was tremendous; see WiC136 for an example from his 1992 Southern Tour).

After Deng, first Jiang Zemin and then current president Hu Jintao have both needed to govern through more of a consensual style, shaped by the leadership decisions of the nine-person Politburo Standing Committee.

Nominally voted for by members of the Party’s Central Committee – the 350-strong political body sitting below it – the Standing Committee is actually selected more via a top-down process, says Li. Newcomers are ‘pulled up’ after discussion among current Standing Committee members, who push for their preferred candidates.

In the past this has looked like an orderly process, notes Bruce Gilley, a professor of political science at Portland State University. The top role of President is picked out well in advance to minimise controversy when the time comes for change. Then the additional roles are allocated among the elite, through an extended period of signalling and negotiation.

Rivalries in the race for power are rarely visible. But this time around, they are becoming a little more apparent.

And Bo is a focal point in this?

It looks like it, with Wang Lijun’s detention a sign of the underlying tensions rising to the surface. By promoting himself aggressively in the public arena (above the backroom horse-trading of previous Standing Committee elections) Bo has made enemies beyond those targeted in his anti-corruption drives in Chongqing.

It’s important to understand that those who get onto the Party’s top body represent factions. The complexity of these factional webs is huge but Li at the Brookings Institution reckons that power in China is concentrated across two informal coalitions in particular.

On the one side is the “elitist” faction, often drawn from families descended from veteran revolutionaries, and usually from the better-off coastal provinces. These are the so-called “princelings”, with a more market-friendly policy agenda that prioritises GDP growth. They are more disposed towards business interests and more skilled in areas like foreign investment, trade and economic policy.

Former president Jiang Zemin was a princeling. Upcoming president Xi Jinping (who ran vibrant Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai formerly) and current vice-premier Wang Qishan are the two most prominent princelings on the current political roster.

Crucially, Bo Xilai is also a princeling.

The other main grouping is the “populists” and includes the current president Hu Jintao, current vice premier Wen Jiabao, and his likely successor Li Keqiang.

As a general rule, the populists are more likely to have less-privileged family backgrounds, spending much of their careers in the inland provinces and often coming to prominence via the Communist Youth League (hence they are known colloquially as the tuanpai or ‘league faction’). Many have made their names in Party roles in organisation and propaganda. Their own agenda is more inclusive than that of the princelings, speaking up for migrants and the rural poor, and pushing for inland provinces to catch up with their richer coastal cousins.

Where does Bo fit into all of this?

Bo is hard to categorise. He’s a princeling who sent his son to Oxford and Harvard. But he’s also pandered to the Party’s leftists with his ‘red’ campaigns (encouraging the singing of Maoist revolutionary songs). With his crackdown on corruption he has also become figure of national prominence – appearing more like a Western politician in seeking to win over public opinion. You can’t argue with success: he has led a municipality of 32 million and presided over strong economic growth (see WiC77).

There’s something else that makes him unique. Given his prestigious background, he was a candidate to be China’s next leader. It came down to Bo versus Xi Jinping, some analysts believe. In the event, the relationships of the Xi family beat out those of Bo (his father was hardliner Bo Yibo). Xi’s victory was signalled when he was elevated to the Standing Committee in 2007 and Bo was sent off to Chongqing. However, Bo’s dramatic activities there soon made clear that he still viewed himself as a political force to be reckoned with, in spite of losing out to Xi.

Those that now pursue Wang – perhaps inviting him to dish the dirt on what he knows about how Chongqing is governed – may want to settle scores with Bo. The goal: to cut him down to size.

In fact, Phoenix TV has reported that Hu Jintao has effectively replaced Wang as Chongqing police boss with one of his own loyalists, Guan Haixiang – a move designed to hem in Bo in his own power base reckons Epoch Times.

In China, it’s never that simple…

The other key point is that the princelings and the tuanpai have tended to counterbalance one another’s influence on the Standing Committee, as well as the senior positions in the ranks immediately below it.

This has worked well enough in the past, with both sides learning to work with the other. Their skill sets are complementary, says Li, and despite representing different constituencies both groups are committed to the same goal: achieving social and economic stability under the Party’s leadership.

Yet now, with the political handover fast approaching, the balance at the heart of political power seems to have been dislodged by politicking between rivals for the top jobs.

What is the likely outcome? On the princeling side sits Xi Jinping, Wang Qishan (currently in charge of trade and finance) and Zhang Dejiang (who holds the energy, industry and transport portfolio).

For the tuanpai Li Keqiang is expected to become premier (like Xi he is already on the Standing Committee). Li Yunchao (currently head of the Party’s Organisation Department) and Liu Yuanshan (director of its Propaganda Department) are also hoping to be confirmed in top jobs.

That leaves three Standing Committee slots available, one of which Bo Xilai hopes to secure. The other two may go to Wang Yang, Guangdong’s Party boss and Shanghai Party secretary Yu Zhengsheng (see WiC113).

But events of the past few days could see a reshuffling of alliances.

The potential outcomes from Wang’s case?

One is that Wang reveals information from Chongqing that damages Bo personally, probably resulting in a failed Politburo bid.

At this stage, Bo seems to be gauging his position and he hasn’t commented publicly on Wang’s departure to Beijing. Fortunately for him, Chinese press coverage of Wang’s fall has been limited to official statements issued through Xinhua. But more disturbingly for Bo, speculation about the case on weibo seems to be have been conducted in much more unrestricted manner.

Presumably, Bo would have preferred a clampdown – but others seem happier to let the story run.

One other outcome, thinks the Wall Street Journal, is that the case could see “the end of the Chongqing model”. Chongqing’s development plans have been more statist in their grand visions (lots of infrastructure spending and big targets for urbanising the rural poor). They have also been populist (huge amounts of affordable housing) and notionally more socialist (all that red propaganda on TV). The governing style plays up the benefits of strong, centralised authority, for example in delivering quick results in dismantling Chongqing’ criminal gangs.

Critics of Bo and Wang say their success has often come at the expense of due legal process (a chilling thought for those who can recall the ‘fast justice’ of the Mao era).

The contrasting model on offer is said to be in Guangdong, and run by Wang, one of Bo’s rivals for a Standing Committee position. It has more emphasis on the free market, with less of a role for planning and central control. There’s less talk of red songs and more of a hint that the media should be allowed greater freedoms. The model is also an economic success story, but more thanks to the entrepreneurial flair of the private sector. It is also supposedly the flag-bearer for a more liberal approach that gives greater emphasis to the rule of law. Events in the village of Wukan (see WiC133) have even seen freer elections of local officials in response to discontent.

Of course, the situation is much more nuanced than this – it always is in China. But at a time when reformers have also been making a lot of noise about the anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour, the direction that China might take in the next decade – a more laissez-faire approach or entrenched state capitalism – is up for debate. How the situation with Wang and Bo develops in the coming weeks might point to which view is in the ascendancy.


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