Posts Tagged ‘Bo Xilai’

Sometime last year Bo Guagua, Bo Xilai’s son, reportedly pulled up in a red Ferrari to meet Jon Huntsman’s daughter at the US ambassador’s residence in Beijing. The car was a symbol of the wealth gap in China and the all-too-common privileges afforded to China’s young political princelings. Some have even suggested it was one of the contributing factors to Bo Xilai’s ultimate downfall.

But did it actually happen?

On April 24th The Harvard Crimson printed a statement by Bo Guagua addressing many of the rumors floating around about him. One of the points said:

I have never driven a Ferrari. I have also not been to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing since 1998 (when I obtained a previous U.S. Visa), nor have I ever been to the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in China. Even my student Visas were issued by the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, which is closer to my home of five years.

This echoes the denial his father made at a press conference last month shortly before he was sacked.

Yesterday I contacted Jon Huntsman’s press office asking about the Ferrari incident and was simply told, “Unfortunately the Governor is not commenting on this story.”

I next contacted the US Embassy in Beijing. Richard Buangan, the embassy’s press secretary, told me by phone that he couldn’t confirm anything.

It was never previously confirmed which of Huntsman’s three adult daughters Bo Guagua supposedly met, but today New York Times reported that they had contacted one of the girls. The article stated:

[Abby Huntsman Livingston] said her sister Mary Anne did share a ride with the younger Mr. Bo after dinner one night but did not notice the make of the car. Ms. Livingston added that she and a friend of Mr. Bo’s were also at the dinner that evening. “He was a very nice person,” she wrote. “I can’t confirm that a Ferrari was involved because I didn’t see it.” She did back up one thing Mr. Bo said: contrary to published accounts, he did not pick up her sister at the ambassador’s residence. “Not sure where the story originated from to be honest, nor does my family,” she wrote.

I tried contacting all three Huntsman sisters myself via their Facebook and Twitter pages, but there was no reply.

The Ferrari story was first exposed in an article by Jeremy Page in Wall Street Journal last November with no names or titles of sources given, citing only “several people familiar with [the episode].”

Anonymous sources are a fact of life with government/embassy officials who aren’t officially authorized to comment. But I emailed Jeremy Page to see if he could give some clarity about the sources he based his report on. I asked  how many sources there were, who they’re affiliated with and if he approached them independently of one-another. Page sent a reply, not answering my questions but directing me to a Dow Jones (WSJ’s parent company) PR rep in New York. She said, “We don’t publicly discuss sources but we’re confident what we reported is true.”

Jeremy Page is a very reputable reporter (whom I and several other journalists have recently said deserves a Pulitzer for his Bo coverage). There’s little reason to doubt that reliable sources did indeed give him the Ferrari information, but who are they? Why do their accounts conflict so greatly with those of the parties directly involved? The issue has serious implications, not only for the Bo family, but also in how the ruling elite and their offspring are viewed in China.

Unfortunately I have more questions to offer at this point than answers, and until one of Page’s sources decides to speak up, it will probably stay that way.

Advertisements

I’m a bit late to the draw with this one, but last Friday, April 13th I noticed something interesting on CCTV. That morning People’s Daily had run an editorial on the Bo Xilai affair that was on the front page of nearly every major newspaper. That evening Xinwen Lianbo – the 7:00 PM national CCTV newscast – presented its routine fantasy world where people are moved by the empty speeches of leaders and the masses are engulfed with heated discussion of People’s Daily commentaries. On this day however, the program appears to have gone above and beyond just having anchors report the PD editorial’s contents. Several men-on-the-street were interviewed to get their takes on the Bo affair. When you set their comments next to the People’s Daily pieces, there are some pretty striking similarities:

Guo Hui, Haikou engineering maintenance worker

People’s Daily:  [The Bo decision] fully illustrated the Chinese Communist Party, which represents the people’s fundamental interests and shall never allow any “special party member” to be above the discipline of the party or the law of the country. Everybody is equal before the law and there is no privileged citizen or exception in the system. 同时也充分说明,代表人民群众根本利益的中国共产党,决不允许有凌驾于党纪国法之上的“特殊党员”;法律面前人人平等,制度面前没有特权、制度约束没有例外,

Worker: From the decision we can see the clear stand of the Party and government to safeguard party discipline and the laws of the state, that is to say, no matter what their position is in the party, nobody can be above the discipline of the party or law of the country. 从这个决定中我们可以看出,我们党和政府在坚决维护党纪国法面前的一个鲜明态度,就是说,在党内不管职位高低,不管任何人,都不能凌驾于党纪国法之上。

Yu Xingshou, Chongqing citizen

Chongqing citizen: As a party member, no matter how high your position is, whoever violates the law should be severely punished by the law. This treatment reflects equality before the law. 作为一名党员,不管你职位多高,干部多大,谁触犯了法律,都应该受到法律的严惩。这次的处理体现了在法律面前人人平等。

Chen Zhiwei, Changsha farmer

People’s Daily: China is a socialist country under the rule of law. The dignity and authority of the law cannot be trampled on. Whoever is involved, whoever broke the law shall be dealt with according to the law with no mercy. 我国是社会主义法治国家,法律的尊严和权威不容践踏。不论涉及到谁,只要触犯法律,都将依法处理,决不姑息。

Farmer: Our country is a socialist country under the rule of law. No one can be above the law and corruption will surely be punished severely by the law. 我们在法治社会主义国家,任何一个人不能凌驾于法律之上,有腐败行为的一定会得到国家法律的严惩。

Yang Fengcheng, Renmin University professor of party history

People’s Daily: Strict organizational discipline is a distinctive feature of our party. One of the party’s advantages is that organizations and members at all levels strictly obey the party discipline and consciously accept it. 严密的组织纪律性,是我们党的一个鲜明特征;党的各级组织和全体党员严守党的纪律、自觉接受党的纪律约束,是我们党的重要优势,

Renmin Professor: The Chinese Communist Party has a distinctive feature: that is strict discipline.  We say everyone is equal before the law, so to a Communist Party member, every member is equal before the party discipline.  中国共产党它有一个鲜明的特点,就是有着严明的纪律。我们讲在法律面前人人平等,那么在党纪面前,对于党员来讲那就是党纪面前人人平等。

Sun Fei, Deputy director of research at the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection

People’s Daily (from earlier April 10th editorial): [The Bo decision] fully reflects the spirit to stress facts and rule by law. It complies with the party’s concept to discipline itself strictly and rule the country according to law. It demonstrates the party’s firm determination to keep its purity.  这充分体现了重事实、讲法治的精神,完全符合我们党从严治党的根本要求和依法治国的执政理念,表明了我们党保持自身纯洁性的坚定决心,

Discipline inspection researcher: The decision by the CPC Central Committee to initiate an investigation of Comrade Bo Xilai’s serious disciplinary problems fully reflects the party’s determination to discipline itself strictly. It fully reflects that the party will never tolerate any corruption and that its ruling concept is to rule the country according to law. It also demonstrated the party’s firm stand to keep its purity.党中央决定对薄熙来同志严重违纪问题进行立案调查, 充分体现了党要管党,从严治党的决心,充分体现了我们党对腐败现象绝不容忍的政治态度,体现了依法治国的执政理念,表名了党保持自身纯洁的坚定立场。

It seems to me one of three things happened here:

  1. CCTV reporters did some serious shoe-leather reporting in several different cities across China in the space of a few hours, managing to find interviewees that happened to have nearly verbatim opinions to the People’s Daily editorials.
  2. The whole country truly was engulfed by the heated editorials and their spirited points rolled off the tongues of all those CCTV approached.
  3. CCTV told interviewees what to say.

I know I know. Chinese state media lacking journalistic integrity…truly breaking news.  Last year a leaked uncut video showed a farmer being told what to say on camera by a reporter, and CCTV has had plenty of its own fake interviews exposed. But having the audacity to do it with five back-to-back interviewees speaking from a single source openly available to the public is a bit surprising; especially for a network now trying to build credibility for its ambitious overseas expansion plans.

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

We’ve now learned via Xinhua and Global Times that Bo Xilai has been officially stripped of his government positions and his family is being investigated for the murder of former British business associate Neil Heywood. What’s important to remember here is that a litany of crimes, possibly including murder, committed by one of China’s 25 most powerful leaders isn’t what’s remarkable about this story. What’s remarkable is simply that the government is acknowledging it. But why?

Step back for a moment and consider some of the events that led to where Bo is today:

  • In February suspicions were raised over a death which had occurred three months earlier. This dead person happened to be a foreigner, ensuring that people outside the controllable domestic media and police would take an unyielding interest.
  • Wang Lijun, Bo’s Chongqing police chief, apparently ran into trouble while investigating Neil Heywood’s death and/or activities by Bo’s wife, yet he persisted.
  • Wang Lijun was fired by Bo and fled to the American consulate in Chengdu drawing international attention to the affair.
  • Uncensored information was allowed to run wild on microblogs, making much of China aware of the Bo saga.
  • Bo fell on the opposite side of the political spectrum from some of the top leaders in the Communist Party (ie. Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao).

The Titanic didn’t sink simply because it swiped an iceberg. Any colossal disaster is the result of multiple, mutually-aggravating factors that come together in a perfect storm. Subtract any one of these factors and it’s highly possible Bo would be sitting in one of the most powerful positions in the world one year from now. He was very unlucky.

It would be very naive though to think that Bo’s crimes are anything extraordinary in a system where the same people who wield complete political control also control the police, courts and media theoretically responsible for indicting them. Consider that Bo’s replacement as Chongqing party secretary, Zhang Dejiang, almost certainly had a hand in concealing from the world the breakout of a dangerous, highly-infectious disease, which caused incalculable deaths and illnesses. Several other high-level leaders were sacked. Zhang wasn’t.

Jia Qinglin presided over Fujian Province during the Yuanhua case – one of the biggest corruption scandals in China’s history. He was widely expected to be taken down with several other high officials who were jailed or executed. Instead, he became the 4th most powerful man in China. Then there’s Jiang Zemin, who’s had several close ties convicted in major corruption scandals – including the mastermind of the Yuanhua case. And these are all just the most powerful and publicly visible leaders. Imagine how easy it would be for lower leaders to imprison (ergo discredit) or kill off potential aggravators.

The Chinese media is already hailing the Bo case as evidence China is under the rule of law. The Xinhua piece that broke the latest news was titled “Police reinvestigate death of Neil Heywood according to law” It and the Global Times piece contained phrases like, “Police authorities paid high attention to the case, and are reinvestigating the case according to law with an attitude to seek truth from facts” and “[A senior official said] the incident would neither disrupt the Party’s 18th National Congress in fall nor the country’s long-term political and social development.”

When the state media uses statements like these so gratuitously, it’s a flimsy way of compensating for the fact that the opposite is probably true. You can be sure that at every turn in the Bo case, legal considerations were made only in the context of their political implications.

We don’t know how guilty any of the other leaders mentioned above are, and we may never know. The media and individuals aren’t allowed to touch them with a ten foot pole, despite the fact that the law clearly says they are.

In China, political winners and losers are decided by unpredictable backroom tactical cunning rather than the ballot box. In the internet age though, anyone with a bone to pick or rival to eliminate can leak damning information easily and anonymously. Cases like Bo’s will inevitably become more common and destabilizing in the future without political reform.

With the recent Bo Xilai saga, fault lines in the façade of Communist Party unity are emerging in a very public way. After the split between the Zhao Ziyang reformist camp and Li Peng’s hardliners in 1989 emboldened Tiananmen protestors, the Party now rightfully worries about the public sensing any weakness in the top leadership.

Even if the events around Bo hadn’t unfolded, the party would still be very much on edge. Later this year it will pass the torch to a new group of authoritarian leaders; and it’ll do so amid simmering social tension and unprecedented channels of mass communication. To protect itself, the party has recently taken measures demanding loyalty and respect for its relevance.

In January, President-in-waiting Xi Jinping called for more “thought control” over university students. This week, China ordered all lawyers to make a pledge of loyalty to the Communist Party. And yesterday, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily ran a commentary opposing “indiscipline” in the army saying, “To resolutely do what the Party asks, and not to do what the Party asks not to do, is the most straightforward measure to oppose indiscipline.”

Army personnel, lawyers and students are real threats to the party. Student intellectuals were behind the Tiananmen Square uprising. Lawyers tend to have an affinity for the written law rather than the whims of leaders – which undermines authoritarian rule. And the military, well, they have guns.

The last group is especially worrisome.

The past few days have seen rumors of a Beijing coup circulating online. While these rumors are unfounded, the idea of a military coup is hardly far-fetched. Worry of this scenario within government ranks became apparent even before the rumors with a series of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily articles calling for “opposition to the ‘erroneous views’ of military nationalization, military de-politicization, and non-party affiliation of the Army, and putting ideological and political construction first.”

The PLA, by law, is bound to protect the Communist Party first – not the country. Calling for the army to be loyal to the nation rather than a single political party was one of the things that landed Liu Xiaobo in jail.

When Deng Xiaoping started to hand power over to Jiang Zemin in the early 90’s, he reportedly had some sage advice for his successor: “Spend four out of five working days with the top [military] brass.”

For a party which then had neither socialist nor democratic-based legitimacy, the loyalty of the military was the only guarantor of continued rule. Jiang listened and did manage to stay in the good graces of the military throughout his tenure by consistently increasing military spending and taking a hard-line on Taiwan. When Hu Jintao came to power he continued the military buildup, but took a softer stance on the island. The Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou was elected president in 2008, allowing Hu to engage Taiwan culturally and economically – which tacitly took a military takeover off the table for the foreseeable future. This wasn’t good news for PLA hawks anxious to use their toys.

Last year, the PLA gave a subtle indictment of Hu by launching an unannounced test of the new J-20 stealth fighter during a visit by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Xi Jinping will take control this year lacking even the degree of support from the military that Hu has. He’ll likely have to spend at least the first year consolidating power and PLA loyalty – assuming the leadership transition goes smoothly to begin with. But if the factional fractures become too deep, military hawks could decide to settle the matter themselves.

Whether the party’s rather pathetic demands for loyalty during this contentious period will be enough to maintain unchallenged authority remains to be seen. But whether they’re students, lawyers or soldiers, people aren’t getting any dumber. What they are getting is better connected and less patient with the political status quo. As one of the PLA Daily commentaries aptly points out, “Historical experience shows that, when the Party and the country are facing big issues, hostile forces at home and abroad always stir up trouble, noises in the society also increase, and the people’s thinking becomes more active.”

Translation: People are starting to think beyond what they’re told – and that’s bad news for the party.

Bo Xilai today stepped down from his job as Chongqing Party Secretary and was promptly replaced by Zhang Dejiang. This choice of a successor is an intriguing one for a number of reasons. Most notably, because Zhang’s got plenty of his own political baggage.

First and most obviously, Zhang studied economics at Kim Il-Sung University in North Korea. We’re not sure yet exactly why Bo fell from favor, but if it was for being too socialist in his policies, the Party is sure sending an interesting message here. Bo’s egalitarian-centered Chongqing Model may not be as dead in the water as Bo himself is.

Zhang Dejiang’s main claim to fame though is his involvement in suppressing news of the SARS outbreak as Guangdong secretary in 2002. In the end, he escaped official blame and firing – unlike many other high Guangdong officials. This was likely because he was too high of a figure to be allowed to fall off the horse; and the fact that he was an ally of then-President Jiang Zemin probably didn’t hurt either.

Then in 2003, the Guangdong newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily (SMD) reported the story of a man who was arrested for not having his ID card and then beaten to death in custody. The story was huge – so huge that Beijing abolished the detention law under which the man had been arrested. Guangdong leadership wasn’t pleased though. Police lost out on the revenue they gained through these kinds of detentions and many local officials were disgraced.

The Guangdong government under Zhang Dejiang started pressuring the paper through indirect warnings and pressing advertisers to come up with evidence of corruption against the paper. Then in late 2003, SMD further embarrassed Guangzhou leaders by reporting that a new case of SARS had resurfaced – before the government acknowledged it. Zhang subsequently approved a full-on corruption probe of the paper. Eventually, two of the paper’s editors were given 6 and 8 year prison sentences on trumped up charges – effectively neutering SMD’s muckraking.

During the rest of Zhang’s tenure in Guangdong, a few other notable things happened under his watch:

In July and August 2005, two major coal mine disasters killed 139 people in the province. It was later found that they were owned by government officials who didn’t follow required safety protocol. Dozens of officials were punished, including four high level provincial leaders.

Also in July 2005, residents of the Guangdong village Taishi assembled to protest a corrupt land grab. Hundreds of police were dispatched and opened fire, killing several people and injuring dozens more. The incident was one of several similar ones to hit Guangdong that year.

Then, to cap off an already hallmark year, a state-owned smelter dumped loads of poisonous cadmium in the Beijiang River.

While it’s not clear how much blame Zhang deserves for these things, by early 2006, many were calling for his ouster. In February that year he allegedly accepted responsibility for Guangdong’s problems and made an offer to the Politburo to resign – which it declined. He ended up stepping down as Guangdong secretary in 2007, but he remained on the Politburo where he’s been Vice-Premier since 2008. Before his series of Guangzhou debacles, he may have been a contender for the Politburo Standing Committee at the 17th National People’s Congress.

According to a 2007 Asia Times piece:

Guangdong officials and general public have mixed feelings about Zhang’s five-year [Guangzhou] rule. The southern province is continuing its high-speed economic growth of the past five years, a period when it is said Zhang protected corrupt Guangdong officials, fearing that harsh crackdowns on corruption could hurt the economy. He reportedly promised Beijing that Guangdong would “clean its own house”, begging that the central government not intervene by sending its own anti-graft busters to the province, while at the same time warning his officials to behave themselves.

Interestingly, Zhang was succeeded in Guangdong by Wang Yang, who’s seen as a reformer because of his support for more freedom in speech and media. Wang’s Guangdong Model is the rival of Bo Xilai’s now heavily-bruised Chongqing Model – which maintains a strong authoritarian hand to institute egalitarian measures and corruption crackdowns.

From the limited available information, it seems that Zhang Dejiang, like Bo, embraces the authoritarian hand and has no desire to liberalize speech or press freedom. And past actions also seem to suggest that, unlike Bo, he uses the authoritarian hand to protect corruption rather than fight it.

If Beijing was looking for a safe clean replacement for scandal-tainted Bo, it sure made an interesting choice. But, for all Zhang’s drawbacks, he led steady economic growth and didn’t draw too much attention to himself. This has indeed traditionally been the way to rise through the party ranks. As BBC reported, he may end up on the Politburo Standing Committee after all.

Bo and Wang new BFFs?

Posted: December 17, 2011 in Politics
Tags: ,

Recently during a routine exchange between Guangdong and Chongqing officials, Wang Yang and Bo Xilai, the party heads of the respective regions, started lavishing over-the-top praise on each other. Bo went on about how Wang “laid the foundations” for the present conditions of Chongqing while Wang talked about a special Chongqing tree he keeps – which reminds him of the municipality and the progress it’s making. This seemed especially odd given that the two men are obvious rivals for the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and have made subtle public jabs at one another in recent months.

Russell Leigh Moses from Wall Street Journal ran a piece explaining the love fest as a prompt from Beijing to quell any public impression of an inner-party rivalry. He speculated that the two men recited their scripts reluctantly, since they still see themselves very much as competitors.

I’m guessing it was something Beijing wanted, but I’ll venture to say perhaps it wasn’t done reluctantly by either side. For months foreign media has been speculating on this rivalry and what direction the PSC (and ergo China) might go. Bo Xilai has become fairly famous through his red campaigns and awareness is growing of his and Wang’s competing models – especially among intellectuals.  This awareness has perhaps become great enough that putting either one on the PSC  would create expectations the greater party doesn’t want to commit to. With Bo, people might expect tough egalitarian measures, or with Wang, greater freedoms. Putting either on now would be a strong a signal of intent to head in one direction or the other.

If that’s the case, it’s either both or neither for the PSC. And putting both on is risky. Having such a public disparity of ideology sitting in the top nine could suggest a break in the unified front the party tries to convey at all times. Radically divergent views between hardliners led by Li Peng and progressives by Zhao Ziyang in 1989 gave protesters a whiff of weakness that they seized upon. That’s hardly a time bomb the party wants to risk planting during this sensitive era.

So perhaps that’s what’s behind the new affections. Bo and Wang are trying to hold hands and show they can work together without stirring up the pot. They’d rather both make the cut than neither of them.

But both men have fallen from their pinnacles. Bo peaked this past summer amid the 90th anniversary of the CCP where he thrived in the greater attempt to reinforce party legitimacy. Since then he’s slid to wild card status after many compared him with Maoism and wondered if the Chongqing model could work on a nationwide scale. So Wang took the spotlight; but with the events that have unfolded in Wukan this week under his watch, it’s hard to imagine he has much of a shot left.

So it looks increasingly likely that neither man will be tapped for promotion. But who knows what could happen in the months ahead.