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Zhongnanhai Abandons Bo Xilai to Protect the Party

September 28, 2012

18th Party Congress Watch (12)

Gao Wenqian, HRIC Senior Policy Advisor

After more than six months of deliberation and bargaining, top officials in the Communist Party of China have finally reached a decision on how to deal with the Bo Xilai problem: charge him with abuse of power and taking enormous bribes in connection with the Wang Lijun incident and the Gu Kailai murder case; punish him with “double expulsion” (from both the Party and his official positions); and hand over his case to judicial authorities to deal with. At this time, it appears that the great power-struggle drama on Beijing’s political stage has finally come to an end, clearing the way for the 18th Party Congress to convene. It is safe to say that if there are no significant changes, Bo will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

At the critical juncture prior to the transfer of power during the 18th Party Congress, how to deal with Bo’s case is a formidable task with implications on all sides. One can say that there are no good options: dealing with him harshly would risk a backlash from the Bo-supporters and Maoist-leftists within the Party; being lenient to Bo would not satisfy the people or be justifiable at home or abroad. This was why Bo’s case had dragged on for so long.

I think there are two main reasons the authorities have decided to handle Bo’s case so harshly. One is related to Bo’s character and conduct: he is power-hungry; there is no low to which he will not stoop; he displayed revolutionary ideals on the outside but corrupt on the inside; and he did many bad things that were ghastly and sinister. Facing the facts unearthed in the investigation, no one could protect him. Another reason is that dealing with Bo harshly is the lesser of two evils. From the point of view of the leaders in the Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao generation and the Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang generation, the pro-Bo forces within the Party and military cannot be underestimated and these supporters would be extremely offended if Bo were punished two harshly. At recent anti-Japanese demonstrations some people displayed this slogan, "The Diaoyu Islands belong to our country; Bo Xilai belongs to the people.” But if Bo were let off the hook too easily, the leaders would suffer the infamy of covering up for a criminal, which would only further tarnish the Party’s image.

In this quandry, the authorities have chosen to sacrifice Bo and sever ties with him for the sake of the overall situation, because after all, it is more important to save face for the Party. In addition, the 18th Party Congress is imminent and can no longer be delayed. If Bo’s case were not dealt with, it might be impossible to convene the 18th Party Congress, or it would have greatly disrupted it. Now, there are various interpretations regarding the handling of Bo’s case. Some believe this is a victory for Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, while others believe it was the work of Xi Jinping, and that it is even connected to his former period of “disappearance.” I think these interpretations are oversimplified and one-sided. In fact, currently within the Party there is not one faction alone that could have controlled the situation, and that dealing with Bo harshly is a consensus reached by the Party’s different factions. Now, Bo has been reduced from being the son of the Party to being its abandoned child, and has reached a place where everyone is rushing to step on him.

In their efforts to preserve the image of the Party, the authorities have taken pains to severe Bo from the Party—but without attempting any institutional change. I’m afraid trying to preserve the Party’s image this way is wishful thinking. Originally, dealing with the Bo and Wang incidents was an opportunity for the Party to turn over a new leaf and to reshape its image, but the authorities once again missed this opportunity. From the Gu and Wang trials, one can see that the authorities are preoccupied with political calculations and under-the-table deals, and are using the law as a shield for cutting political ties. They might think their calculations are clever, but in reality they are sacrificing a lot to gain very little. They have destroyed the only remaining credibility in the Chinese judicial process, obliterating the dignity of the law and exacerbating the credibility crisis of the Party. This situation will present severe challenges for Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, the fifth-generation leaders about to take the helm of the Party. In the event that chaos emerges, the situation could quickly deteriorate, and the Party leadership will be unable to maintain unity inside the party or rule the country. We can only imagine what the outcome will be.