The party chief of one of China’s largest metropolises and member of the all-powerful 24-man Politburo went for a meeting in Beijing. Little did he know, he wasn’t to return home. He was sacked from his positions and awaits certain imprisonment. This is widely regarded as the result of factional party infighting ahead of a coming leadership shuffle and has been dubbed a “big bomb” for Chinese politics by one analyst.
But wait. This isn’t 2012 and we’re not talking about Bo Xilai. It’s 2006 and I’m describing former Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu, Jiang Zemin’s old “Shanghai Clique” brethren. He found himself on the wrong side of a politically-motivated corruption investigation launched by Hu Jintao’s Beijing clan while posturing for the following year’s 17th National Congress (China’s mid-term leadership shuffle). At the time, foreign media sank their teeth into the sensational political drama.
But wait. If we rewind further to 1995 we find that Beijing mayor and Politburo member Chen Xitong was taken down for corruption and embezzlement. He was in the Beijing faction and a rival of then paramount leader Jiang Zemin. Oh, and the scandal unraveled following the mysterious death of one of Chen’s close associates.
Are we noticing a pattern here?
Bo Xilai’s unfolding scandal is very similar to these past instances, but of course it’s different in one critical way: A lot of Chinese people know about it.
Yesterday morning it was the talk of the Beijing subway and a Chinese friend told me politics has replaced celebrity gossip around her office water cooler. This has forced the government to face the public with the scandal to a degree never before seen.
On April 10th, China’s official Xinhua news agency released a short, but explosive statement announcing that Bo had been officially stripped of his titles and his wife was suspected in the British businessman’s murder.
The embarrassing thing for Xinhua (and ergo the government) was that Reuters had broken this news hours earlier. And microbloggers on Weibo reported it (in one form or another) hours before that. In fact, the whole Bo saga unfolded on Weibo as the state media released only occasional terse statements.
When the Chen Liangyu scandal hit the light of day in 2006, there were about 130 million Chinese internet users and precisely zero of them were microbloggers. Today, over 500 million Chinese are online and half of them microblog. Imagine what those numbers will look like at the next leadership shuffle in 2017.
One can’t deny the sensational theatrics of late night foreign embassy runs, a dead (possibly ex-spy) foreigner, and a flamboyant neo-socialist. At its core though, Bo’s case is hardly unprecedented. But if we look back at the cases of Chen Xitong, Chen Liangyu and now Bo Xilai, we see that each incident has shaken the central party apparatus successively harder.
The party has been thrown off balance, but at the end of the year it will in all likelihood still be standing with its new leadership. But when China’s shadowy power politics inevitably spill out again into the increasingly connected and decreasingly trusting public, can things possibly remain as stable?
The unremarkable case of Bo Xilai: Part I