- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is FP's Asia editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington, D.C. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, the BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
This is a guest post from Charlie Custer, the founder of Chinageeks.org, a blog that provides analysis and translation of modern China:
In the wake of Premier Wen Jiabao’s jab at former up-and-comer Bo Xilai during his speech at the closing of China’s National People’s Congress yesterday, China’s state newswire Xinhua announced this morning that Bo Xilai has been replaced in his Chongqing posts by a vice-Premier named Zhang Dejiang. The one-sentence news bulletin did not make it clear whether Bo retained his position on the Politburo, or whether he had resigned or been fired, but most observers agree the news is a definitive sign that Bo’s political ascendancy is at an end.
A few months ago, Bo Xilai was regarded as a prominent up-and-comer, and a possible competitor for a position on China’s powerful politburo standing committee. His governance of Chongqing, a massive city-state in central China once known for its rampant gangsterism, has been marked with a mix of socialist flourish — Bo brought back cultural revolution songs and promoted "red" culture — and unceasing pursuit of anti-corruption and anti-gangster prosecutions, often culminating in high-profile trials and surrounded with rumors of unethical methods. But in February it all started falling in apart in way that was conspicuously, almost suspiciously, public for the normally secretive upper ranks of China’s Communist Party.
On China’s microblogs, discussion of Bo’s downfall has been a hot topic since the rumors of Bo protege Wang Lijun’s attempted defection first emerged in February. In a scandal that has yet to be fully unraveled, Wang entered a US Consulate in Chengdu, possibly turning over state secrets to US officials, then left voluntarily and was taken by Chinese state security agents. He has not been heard from since, but the Chongqing government did announce that Wang was undergoing "vacation-style medical treatment." This odd phrasing caught the attention of net users, and early on, there were faltering attempts by censors to stop the discussion, but quite quickly it became clear China’s microblog operators were not dedicated to protecting Bo and discussion of him would be allowed, even promoted. At present, Bo’s dismissal ranks at the top of Sina Weibo’s trending topics list, which indicates both that it is being widely discussed and that Sina’s censors endorse this discussion. The trending topics list is managed carefully by Sina, and politically sensitive issues never appear there for long.
Bo’s flamboyant style and promotion of his own ‘Chongqing Model’ of governance has always made him a controversial figure, and unsurprisingly the news of his removal has provoked a variety of responses. "Bo Xilai may personally have had problems […] but he really did many good things for the people," wrote popular microblogger and media-watcher Dou Hanzhang. "We cannot completely negate the ‘Chongqing Model’ just because of his personal problems." Beijing lawyer Wang Cailiang wrote: "Many of my friends are very happy [about Bo Xilai’s dismissal]. I don’t think there’s really anything worth feeling happy about. How many officials are there in our Party who were elected and who respect the opinions of Party members? It’s like kids playing house, a few factions determine who holds what position. It doesn’t have anything to do with the rule of law, democracy, or the people’s lives."
Other netizens shared photos and songs to commemorate Bo’s career in Chongqing, where he picked up a reputation as a populist and a fighter against corruption, even if his methods of prosecution were sometimes rumored to be as criminal as the methods of the gangsters he was hunting down. "I don’t even want to stay in Chongqing anymore," wrote one anonymous weibo user, "with Bo Xilai gone and Wang Lijun removed, is it even safe?" Reading through hundreds of netizen comments, it is obvious that many netizens feel that whatever his flaws may have been, Bo Xilai did noticeably improve life in Chongqing during his tenure there.
As for who’s happy about Mr. Bo’s political demise, the consensus seems to be that Guangdong Party secretary Wang Yang, long considered a rival of Bo’s, should be ecstatic. Bo’s dismissal is also a setback for the "Princeling" faction within the Party — the group of Party leaders whose parents also held high-profile official positions — and a victory for Hu Jintao’s "Communist Youth League" faction. Some net users have even suggested that the real winners are gangsters, who some fear will be able to run rampant in Chongqing now that Wang Lijun and Bo Xilai are gone. One wrote, "With Bo Xilai’s fall, the happiest are the gangsters, gangsters nationwide will be drinking through the night in celebration."