Lately Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai has grabbed the attention of anyone with a stake in China. He’s come to embody a movement some have deemed China’s “New left” by resurrecting Mao-era egalitarian ideology. He’s done so with some practical measures like focusing on narrowing the income gap, fighting corruption and building low-income housing; but he’s has also taken a propaganda approach with mass text messages quoting Mao, patriotic song competitions and sending cadres to spend time with peasants in the countryside. He’s clearly caught Beijing’s attention and is considered a front-runner for a seat next year on the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s highest government body
Many Chinese intellectuals and foreign China-watchers are appalled, seeing his actions as a regression toward Cultural Revolution days. A Diplomat article even suggested he’s the antithesis to Wen Jiabao, who’s spoken on the need for Western-like political reform and democratization.
But politically, Bo and Wen are fraternal twins. Like any other Chinese leader who’s risen to high power, Bo is presumably well-versed in The Thirty-Six Stratagems, an ancient Chinese list of tactics for overcoming adversaries.
One of these tactics instructs to “Borrow a corpse to resurrect the soul” (借尸还魂, Jiè shī huán hún). The idea is to take a long-discarded custom or ideology and revive it to suit your own needs.
Disdain for the Mao socialist era is starting to morph into romanticism thanks to modern problems like endemic corruption, wealth disparity and social inequality. Even those who lived through Mao’s dystopia have seen enough time go by that the period’s redeeming qualities like social equality, unity and simplicity are starting to trump the horrors in their memories. When someone has their home seized in a corrupt real estate deal and then sees their Party secretary drive a BMW, it’s natural to miss the equality of socialism, even if it was equality in poverty.
Bo Xilai knows this. Wen Jiabao uses strategic photo-ops and compassionate speeches to present himself as a champion of the common folk. Bo just takes a slightly different approach by playing to common people’s nostalgia for a time when there were no nouveau rich to make them feel inadequate and cheated. And regardless of whatever else was going on at the time, those mass rallies of the red era gave people a sense of belonging and euphoria. Song competitions and quotes from Mao are away of recapturing some of those feelings.
This is why Bo has gotten Beijing’s attention. By the time the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1991, socialist ideology had become bankrupt in China. The Communist Party’s legitimacy has since rested in nationalism and economic growth. Sometime soon though, the economic growth will slow, then nationalism can only be pushed so far before impeding trade. So if someone can revive some of the lost government legitimacy socialist ideology brought, then that’s more than enough to earn a Politburo seat.
I’m not worried by people like Bo though. He talks the red talk, but he’s not about to close the markets and shove people back into communes. He’s not stupid. It’s a power play, pure and simple. By winning the hearts of the people, he’ll win the hearts of Beijing…just like Wen Jiabao did.
I’m certainly not endorsing Bo, but his propaganda efforts so far have seemed relatively harmless. It doesn’t seem like he’s tried to enhance the Communist dogma in the education system or tried to scapegoat foreigners as many leaders do in their power plays. And if he wants to crack down on corruption and give some poor people better opportunities during his power play, I really don’t see a problem with that either.
There are plenty of people in China’s radical left that passionately support Bo, but these die-hard Maoists will be disappointed when Bo becomes just another moderate Politburo member.
The Politburo is like the US presidency. It might lean to the left or right in any given cycle, but it’s not going to move radically in either direction. The people voting on the members are too diverse. If “leftists” like Bo are on the politburo, there may very well be some superficial “red” aspects brought in, and there probably will be more emphasis on egalitarian measures to narrow the income gap and pacify the poor. But there won’t be a radical socialist transformation any more than there’s been a radical democratic transformation under Wen Jiabao.