What we know and don’t know about Bo

Let’s face it, far more Americans associate the name "Bo" more with Barack Obama’s dog than with Bo Xilai, the now-disgraced former Communist Party chief of Chongqing (my generation of Americans will, of course, forever associate Bo with this).  That might be about to change, however, because Bo is at the center of the most serious post-Tiananmen ...

Let's face it, far more Americans associate the name "Bo" more with Barack Obama's dog than with Bo Xilai, the now-disgraced former Communist Party chief of Chongqing (my generation of Americans will, of course, forever associate Bo with this).  That might be about to change, however, because Bo is at the center of the most serious post-Tiananmen political scandal in China.  

To recap:  Bo was pushing hard for an appointment to the nine-person Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) Politburo -- the most powerful decision-making body in China.  He might very well have received it too, based on the combination of his "princeling" ties, his populist, Maoist-style campaigns and the flock of high party officials visiting Chongqing to see how he was doing it. 

Two months ago,  however, Bo's police chief Wang Lijun showed up at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu seeking asylum.  He left the consulate, but the reverberations haven't stopped.  First Bo disappeared from public view, then his "Jackie Kennedyesque" wife Gu Kailai was charged with the murder of British citizen Neil Haywood, and then Bo was formally put under investigation and stripped of all his party posts. 

Let’s face it, far more Americans associate the name "Bo" more with Barack Obama’s dog than with Bo Xilai, the now-disgraced former Communist Party chief of Chongqing (my generation of Americans will, of course, forever associate Bo with this).  That might be about to change, however, because Bo is at the center of the most serious post-Tiananmen political scandal in China.  

To recap:  Bo was pushing hard for an appointment to the nine-person Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Politburo — the most powerful decision-making body in China.  He might very well have received it too, based on the combination of his "princeling" ties, his populist, Maoist-style campaigns and the flock of high party officials visiting Chongqing to see how he was doing it. 

Two months ago,  however, Bo’s police chief Wang Lijun showed up at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu seeking asylum.  He left the consulate, but the reverberations haven’t stopped.  First Bo disappeared from public view, then his "Jackie Kennedyesque" wife Gu Kailai was charged with the murder of British citizen Neil Haywood, and then Bo was formally put under investigation and stripped of all his party posts. 

So, what the hell happened?  Slowly, details are starting to trickle out about Bo’s methods in Chongqing and exactly what led to his downfall.  In order, I’d suggest reading the following: 

1)  On Bo’s methods in Chingqing, see this gripping Financial Times expose from March, followed by Malcolm Moore’s dispatch in the Daily Telegraph

2)  See Reuters’ Chris Buckley on what exactly triggered Wang’s flight to Chengdu — and then read this Cheng Li interview in NBR that throws some cold water on the stories coming out now.  . 

3)  On how U.S. officials handled Wang’s request for asylum, check out the New York Times’ Steven Lee Myers and Mark Landler’s excellent reconstruction of events in Chengdu

4)  On what This All Means for China, read Minxin Pei, Max Fisher, Cheng Li, and Jonathan Fenby

5)  Finally, read John Garnault’s excellent FP Long Read on whether a Bo-style scandal is about to break out in the People’s Liberation Army. 

OK, now you know everything I know.  So what do I know about Bo?  Not much, except for four things: 

A)  For the past decade there was a lot of talk about how China had managed to routinize the authoritarian selection process.  The transfer of power from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao seemed seamless.  Well, say what you will about what’s happening now, but it ain’t seamless.

B)  I tend to agree with Minxin Pei (and disagree with Cheng Li) that Bo’s arrest is not an example of the system working, but rather the system coming veeeerrrrry close to a catastrophic failure.  The fact China’s official apparatus has clammed up after Bo’s arrest is a clear sign that there’s still a lot of infighting going on.  The notion that this will therefore lead to a real reform/anti-corruption trend strikes me as based on hope more than reality (though see this previous post of mine as a hedge). 

C)  Despite the official no-comments, the fact that Chinese officials are now leaking like a seive to Western reporters is interesting, and suggests the ways in which a purge in this decade will not resemble pre-Tiananmen purges.  It’s not that there will be more rumors and conspiracy theories now than thirty years ago — it’s that all this stuff will not be on the Internet — which will force the CCP to respond more than it would like.

D)  Based on how things played out, the U.S. State Department deserves a tip of the cap for how it handled Wang’s sojourn to Chengdu.  The fact that there were no press leaks until yesterday is good — anything the U.S. government says publicly about this episode needlessly embarrasses and angers the Chinese government.  That said, given the current attitudes in Beijing about the United States, even the Times story is going to raise some hackles.  Indeed, given the current strife inside China, it would be easy to envision Beijing making life difficult for the United States elsewhere as a way of using nationalism to paper over elite divisions.

Am I missing anthing?  Oh, I’m missing plenty, and I strongly urge China-watchers to proffer their comments! 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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