What were the news highlights of Bo Xilai’s appearance at the National People’s Congress? And how did events play out in the run-up to his replacement as Chongqing’s boss?
After the detention of right-hand man Wang Lijun (see WiC138), speculation about Bo Xilai’s political future has been rife, even as the Party Secretary of Chongqing turned up at China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC) last week. The country’s Twitter-equivalent, Sina Weibo was active, with one NPC delegate using the platform to allege Chongqing police had taken him into custody on March 7. The delegate had earlier indicated that he had fresh allegations on the Wang scandal.
Things got more interesting when Bo failed to appear at a nationally-televised meeting of the 25- person Politburo, of which he is a member. In a mark of the unprecedented attention being devoted to the Bo drama, 500 journalists turned up on Friday for the Chongqing delegation’s briefing (only 20 got in).
What then followed was highly unorthodox by the stage-managed standards of China’s political class. Bo actually answered impromptu questions about the Wang Lijun affair. He conceded errors too, saying that he had “neglected” his “oversight duties”. Viewers watching CCTV also saw him speak of his own political ambitions, including a spot on the nine- person Standing Committee that governs China. Bo downplayed this possibility: “Speaking from my heart, I’ve never associated myself with any notions about the Eighteenth Party Congress.”
The old feisty Bo was still in evidence. He reiterated his leftist doctrine – “If only a few people are rich, then we’ll slide into capitalism. We’ve failed” – and said Chongqingers would still sing ‘red’ Maoist songs. He also defended his family, saying that his son Guagua (an unusual name that means ‘melon melon’) did not drive a Ferrari, as the Wall Street Journal had alleged. He also claimed Guagua’s expensive overseas education (Harrow, Oxford, Harvard) had all been paid for by scholarships.
The BBC was palpably excited by the controversy surrounding Bo Xilai. “In public at least, Chinese politics are sedate and predictable. But this scandal has flipped this world upside down,” it wrote on its website. The BBC also thought that the Chongqing boss was keeping a far lower profile at this NPC than in previous years and believed Bo’s promotion prospects had been dented. The British broadcaster seized on Bo’s non-appearance at the Politburo, and his explanation that he had “a cough”. That seemed like a “weak excuse”.
Bo is the son of revolutionary leader, Bo Yibo, who helped Mao found modern China. His current troubles are widely viewed as a sign that China’s pro-market reformers have gained the upper hand over those who favour more of a statist model.
Noted the New York Times: “The public concession of error by Bo bolstered speculation that his chances were slim to join the top ranks of the Chinese leadership during a change of power this year.”
The Wall Street Journal thought Bo “will probably be replaced as Chongqing Party chief and sidelined into a powerless role.”
That turned out to be a prescient prediction, although it happened faster than the newspaper probably expected. On Thursday it reported that Bo had been replaced as Chongqing’s boss by Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang. The one-line announcement gave no further details, i.e. what Bo might do next.
The Financial Times said replacing Bo was connected with Premier Wen Jiabao’s public criticism of Chongqing’s government the previous day. Wen cited not only the Wang Lijun scandal but also referred to the “mistakes of the Cultural Revolution” in what was deemed a direct attack on Bo’s ‘red’ campaigns.
For more background on the current debates about economic reform in China see WiC140 (China’s great reform act) and WiC136 (“Reform or die!”). For earlier articles on the relevance of political changes to businesspeople see WiC113 (Turning 90 but far from grey) and WiC131 (China’s most wanted).
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