Bo Xilai, former Communist party secretary in Chongqing, was suspended from the Central Committee and Politburo of the Communist Party on Monday. He had fallen from grace several weeks ago; his suspension is simply the logical conclusion of a political shift. However, at the same time Bo was suspended, his wife Gu Kailai was named a suspect in the murder of British businessman Neil Haywood. Xinhua news agency reported that Gu and Zhang Xiaojun, who worked for the Bo family, were "highly suspected" in the murder over "economic interests." There had been a great deal of speculation about the meaning of Bo's earlier ouster, which this allegation made clear is final. But the announcement that his wife might have committed murder over a business matter opens up a new dimension of the affair.
It is certainly possible that Gu is guilty, just as it is possible that she will be exonerated. However, what is clear from the announcement is that Bo was not going to be simply dismissed, but dismissed in a way that would tarnish his name and undermine his public position. Bo publicly condemned the excesses of the Chinese elite, claimed to be a populist — somewhat in the tradition of Mao Zedong – and, at least rhetorically, supported the rights of China's masses. By saying that his wife might be implicated in murder over business dealings with a foreigner at the same time that Bo is being stripped of his positions, the Party clearly intends to destroy any credibility that he had as a populist. The allegation paints Bo and his family as potentially more corrupt than any of those he had condemned.
In every country there are individuals who rise and fall in politics; and in every country there are politicians who are corrupt and hypocritical. But accusing someone of murder is extreme. The accusation is no more routine in China than it would be anywhere. The Chinese tendency in fact is to soften the significance of political shifts. It is widely held that the Chinese cover up corruption among leaders, which is what Bo seemed to be saying through his drives against crime and corruption. But Bo's ouster is being handled in a unique way, with no softening of the blow. Officials are deliberately accentuating and drawing attention to the accusation. Even if Bo's wife were suspected in this crime, there were ways to deal with it without announcing a mere suspicion on the same day he was stripped of power.
Bo, whatever his actions, spoke for a faction in China who argue that the economic revolution started by Deng Xiaoping has gone too far. First, in enriching themselves, the elite had excluded much of the Chinese public from the economic upheaval. One way to look at this is to realize that 92 percent of China lives in households with the income equivalent of an average Bolivian. China was and remains a poor country.
In addition, China's economic miracle has slowed down. The growth rate may still be substantial, but it has declined, and growth alone does not measure economic health. Japan enjoyed substantial growth in 1990 while its financial system was entering crisis. This is not unlike what has happened in much of the Western world, including the United States, but the extremes in China are far more significant than elsewhere. Not only has the majority been excluded from the benefits of China's economic growth, but prospects for future inclusion are further declining.
The Chinese government is reaching a rotation in leadership. The new leadership has to decide on one of three directions. They can continue down the current path, they can attempt to liberalize or they can rein in economic excesses in favor of greater egalitarianism. Bo spoke for this last option, encouraging centralized economic control and a neo-Maoist public image to address economic disparity. It is not clear how sincere he was or how cynical, but his message appeared to resonate with some in broader China. Liberalizers represent a threat to the status quo and are crushed; Bo represented an even more serious threat. First, he was part of the elite, a Politburo member who was born a princeling. Second, he touched a nerve among the poor, the same nerve that the Party claimed to own. Third, he personalized — with charisma — the idea of a reversal. He was no Maoist, but he was invoking powerful symbols.
The main faction against a substantial shift in course could not accommodate Bo. This faction was far more threatened by neo-Maoist populism among peasants and poor workers than it ever was by urban liberals. To them, this tendency had to be delegitimized. By stripping Bo of legitimacy, firing him and revealing his entire family as possibly corrupt and vicious, the main faction sought to destroy any emerging alternatives.
Bo and his wife may well have given their rivals all the ammunition they needed. But if so, they used every bit of it. In our view, this illustrates the growing insecurity of the main leadership of the Party and is significant as a measure of their intent to hold on to power.