China's Chongqing Party Leader Dismissed

4 MINS READMar 16, 2012 | 03:26 GMT
Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 14

On March 15, Li Yuanchao, head of the Communist Party of China's (CPC's) powerful Organization Department announced the CPC Central Committee's decision to dismiss Bo Xilai from his post as Chongqing Party secretary. He will be replaced by Zhang Dejiang, the current vice premier. The decision came just a day after Premier Wen Jiabao's rare criticism of the Chongqing municipal leadership's handling of the Wang Lijun incident. The decision also suggests that a consensus has been reached within Beijing's top leadership to oust Bo.

A promising leader with a prominent family background — his father, Bo Yibo, helped found the CPC — Bo was considered a strong contender for top CPC leadership as early as the 1990s. His charismatic and often outspoken leadership brought him early national attention in Dalian, Liaoning province. But his leadership style contrasts sharply with the increasingly collectivist and technocratic CPC leadership. Paradoxically, while it was this leadership style that allowed him to climb the ranks of the CPC leadership, it was also his ultimate undoing. The dismissal does not yet mean an official end to Bo's political career, but it is no doubt a decisive warning against the kind of aggressive social-economic initiatives for which Bo is known — the so-called "Chongqing model" — as well as his unorthodox attempt at furthering his CPC career.

The Chongqing Model: An Ideological Debate

In just over four years in Chongqing, Bo had effectively transformed the mountainous, industry-dominated inland municipality into an attractive investment destination with greatly reduced crime rates. He significantly enhanced socio-economic equality in the region, alleviating some of the social polarization and frustration from which other Chinese cities suffered on the path to economic growth and transformation. Bo's Chongqing model carried hints of socialist revivalism, most visible in his renowned red nostalgia and anti-corruption campaigns, and relatively equalized wealth distribution. Chongqing's development also benefited from relatively centralized economic control at the municipal level (investment also was driven by the municipality's central authority).

With its ideological flair and popular support, the Chongqing model soon became the centerpiece of ideological debates across the country. Unlike the often violent struggles that characterized China's revolutionary era, these debates focused on the ideological and practical implementation of China's future development. Over the past two years, ideological debates have grown particularly intense among the country's New Left, who favor authoritarian rule and the so-called liberal rightists, who advocate western-style political institutions and a market economy.

Akin to the Maoist style, the experiment in Chongqing appeared to cater to CPC ideology, which has been increasingly promoting more authoritarianism, particularly under the administration of President Hu Jintao. Still, the massive movement and revolutionary style campaign on which the Chongqing model rested fell out of favor with Beijing, due in part to fears that it would exacerbate ideological divisions among politicians and the public, particularly in the lead-up to the leadership transition. But perhaps more prominent is the rising voice of liberal-style reformers who advocate freer capital, a market economy and the adoption of western-style institutions. These reformers see top-down CPC reform as unlikely to achieve their goals.

Thus, Bo's Chongqing model came under attack from both extremes of the political spectrum. As such, Bo's removal leaves significant questions to the suitability of the Chongqing model, which may have proved to be a viable model for other Chinese municipalities further inland.

Factional Balance

CPC politics typically engender intense competition and factional balance, and this is particularly the case during transition periods. Bo is considered as a prominent princeling, and the influence and power of his father in CPC politics had largely assisted his political career in the past. After his father died, Bo sustained his career on public popularity — this may have helped him take a more unorthodox approach to gaining popularity — and by carefully balancing political factions, such as the China Communist Youth League, or allies of different bureaucracies. (Princelings were widely considered a faction, but their disunity and policy disagreements made them an extremely diffuse entity.)

Factions notwithstanding, the CPC leadership emphasizes unity, and the most important decision comes from compromise or negotiation without public disclosure. As competition intensified, Bo became an easy target for all factions to attack. Bo's downfall would suggest the failure of his balancing act. 

In this respect, Bo's dismissal points to an underlying tension in the Chinese political system. China is approaching an economic and political juncture, and some degree of reform seems necessary to avoid an economic crash or eventual political turmoil. But bringing real reform to fruition runs counter to the immediate interests of the CPC bureaucracy. Reform would upset the system  and dislodge power structures that have been in place — and growing — for the past thirty years. Overcoming the bureaucracy to implement genuine reform will require some person or group with personality and will.

But the CPC has worked hard to stifle exactly these kinds of figures in the post-Mao era. For the last decade and a half, the Chinese government has been run by highly efficient, cautious and bland technocrats. This system functioned well as long as the global economy was booming and China's economy was expanding. China may not be capable of adjusting politically to an economic situation where efficiency, transparency and sustainability trump export-led growth. Bo was not that long-awaited leader, but his case is symptomatic of the tension internal to Chinese politics between a dangerous — but effective — personality and the safe but ultimately inadequate political culture of the CPC.

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