Skip to main content

Bo Xilai's ouster offers clues about China's secret leadership splits

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Special to CNN
April 4, 2012 -- Updated 0658 GMT (1458 HKT)
Bo Xilai is seen on March 14, a day before he was removed from his post as party secretary of Chongqing.
Bo Xilai is seen on March 14, a day before he was removed from his post as party secretary of Chongqing.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bo Xilai, once a powerful politician in China, was removed from his post in March
  • Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Bo's story is intriguing -- was it power struggle or did he flout law?
  • He says incidents like Bo's fall offer precious clues about state of Chinese government
  • Wasserstrom: Factional politics indicate Communist Party is not as unified as it seems

Editor's note: Jeffrey Wasserstrom, an associate fellow at the Asia Society, is the author of "China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know" and co-editor of the forthcoming anthology, "Chinese Characters: Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land."

(CNN) -- A year ago, Bo Xilai was one of the most powerful and talked-about politicians in China. He was a member of China's ruling body, the Politburo, and he seemed to have a shot at gaining a seat on the key decision-making unit within it, the Standing Committee.

But on March 15, he was removed from his post as the party secretary of Chongqing. Today, he's still one of the most-talked about men in China, not for how far he'll rise but for how far he's destined to fall.

Charismatic and determined, Bo was primarily known for launching bold initiatives, such as encouraging the mass singing of "red songs" (revolutionary anthems from the days of Chairman Mao Zedong) and pushing for high-profile drives to rid his inland, south-central city of organized crime.

The rise and fall of China's Bo Xilai

The circumstances surrounding Bo's fall are intriguing. Was it a power struggle or did he flout the law? In February, one of Bo's top lieutenants, whom he abruptly demoted, went to the U.S. consulate presumably to seek political asylum. Last week, the British government asked the Chinese government to investigate the mysterious death of a British businessman who claimed to have close ties to Bo's family.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Despite this drama, Chinese leaders are hoping to minimize disturbances ahead of the major leadership transition of the Communist Party in the fall. So, what can we learn from this strange tale so far?

1. No matter how unified the leaders at the top of China's power structure seems, there are bound to be fissures.

Torture claims follow Bo Xilai scandal
Reaction mixed to Bo Xilai's ouster
Infighting in Chinese Communist Party

Factional divides might be linked to a number of factors, such as personal style, family history, regional identity or ideology. After the Tiananmen protests of 1989, China's leaders tried to show that factionalism was a thing of the past. But today, we know fissures may be hidden but can surface anytime.

Bo Xilai and the politics of Chinese succession

Riding on his popularity before his fall, Bo took the step of trying to secure a seat on the Standing Committee by an unusual method. He seemed more like someone campaigning for votes rather than striving simply to get a nod of approval from the top Chinese leaders. In a country that has very limited democracy and only local elections, this seemed out of place.

2. Historical symbolism can be useful, but it can turn into political dynamite.

Bo's rise was helped by his skill at playing to nostalgia for specific aspects of the Mao years. His promotion of old nationalist songs and presentation of himself as a fearless crusader against corruption and urban crime won him broad praise and support. But invoking the Maoist past proved to be a double-edged sword.

The first clear indication that Bo was about to fall came when Premier Wen Jiabao gave a speech in March when he talked of the danger of any recurrence of "Cultural Revolution" patterns. To invoke the specter of the Cultural Revolution is always to conjure up images of destabilizing "turmoil" of a kind most Chinese would rather never see again. Bo's tactics made it all too easy for his political opponents to call him out.

3. Purges in China are unpredictable.

It's hard to figure out what to call what has happened to Bo, who has been demoted but not detained and retains membership in the Politburo. He is definitely on the outs, so the term "purge" comes to mind, but the story is not finished.

Consider Hua Guofeng, Mao's immediate successor, who was pushed aside after a few years by Deng Xiaoping, yet lived out his days as a minor official. Or Deng himself, who was in favor, out of favor and then back in favor as the leader of the Communist Party.

At the other end of the spectrum is Zhao Ziyang, a chosen successor to Deng who was ousted for taking too lenient a stance toward the 1989 protests and remained under house arrest until his death. And powerful mayors who were made scapegoats for anti-corruption drives and eventually executed. We just don't know at what point on this spectrum Bo will end up.

Bo's story seems hard to follow for outsiders, but nonetheless, it's worth watching.

In China, the most important leadership decisions are made by small groups huddling behind closed doors. This means that unexpected incidents such as Bo's fall offer precious if hard to decipher signs. Chinese high politics remains a black box in many ways, and like those in airplanes, its secrets will only be revealed when there's a crash. There's no indication of that happening to the Communist Party anytime soon, so for now we should make the most of the hints.

One thing we can be sure of: We haven't seen the last of factional politics in the Communist Party.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of this is how the official press has been full of statements about the leadership being unified. When this sort of message is made too forcefully, there is likely widespread anxiety about its truthfulness.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeffrey Wasserstrom.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1928 GMT (0328 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT