Skip to main content

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

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Special to CNN
updated 2:58 AM EDT, Wed April 4, 2012
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
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT