Tea Leaf Nation

Bo Xilai, The Man Chinese Cyberspace Could Not Forget

Unpopular healthcare reforms just stirred up nostalgia for Chongqing’s fallen demagogue

This photo dated June 29, 2011 shows a C
This photo dated June 29, 2011 shows a Chinese woman carries a protrait of Bo Xilai, until now a rising political star known for busting gangs and reviving Maoist ideals, after one of the "red" culture sessions where workers gather to sing revolutionary songs. Bo, the charismatic former head of China's Chongqing city, attracts fascination and scorn in equal measure, and had been seen as a leading contender to access the top rungs of power in China, but in a dramatic reversal of fortune, he was sacked as Chongqing head on March 15 after being embroiled in a rare public scandal. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

In the southwestern Chinese metropolis of Chongqing, the crowd has won the day. Hundreds suffering from uremia, a potentially life-threatening condition associated with kidney failure, took to the streets on March 29 to protest the local government’s steep price hike for dialysis treatment, part of a long-planned healthcare reform introduced on March 25. Photos posted online show that they marched with banners and blocked traffic to one of the city’s key intersections for several hours. The local government’s knee-jerk reaction was true to script: dispersing the crowd with police and ordering local media to ignore the protest completely. But after evidence of such a prominent display of public discontent invariably found its way into China’s vociferous blogosphere, causing an online uproar in support of the patients, the local government abruptly reversed course and announced a suspension of the healthcare reform.

That would be the end of the story for any other Chinese city. In fact, it’s par for the course nowadays -- Chinese officialdom bowing to public pressure is nothing new in the age of social media. In recent years, numerous NIMBY (i.e. not in my backyard) protests, in which citizens demonstrated against the building of undesirable facilities like chemical plants in their community, ended with the capitulation of local governments and the abandonment of construction plans.

But Chongqing is different. The city is intricately linked to the name of Bo Xilai, who served as the Communist party chief of the city from 2007 until his dramatic downfall in 2012, and netizens commenting on the latest healthcare reform protests expressed nostalgia for him and his brand of populism. Prior to his purge, Bo built what became known as the “Chongqing model” of governance: he used his “rock star”-like charisma to build a personality cult, organized large-scale campaigns to sing revolutionary songs from the era of late Communist strongman Mao Zedong, linked himself publicly with leftist ideology that diverged from the central government’s official line of economic reformism, and borrowed heavily to fund crowd-pleasing public work projects like fixing up decrepit housing and planting trees, all the while using the police force as his personal henchmen to remove critics. Nowadays, Bo is languishing with a life sentence in the Qincheng prison near Beijing, after being convicted of corruption, bribery and abuse of power in September 2013.

In the southwestern Chinese metropolis of Chongqing, the crowd has won the day. Hundreds suffering from uremia, a potentially life-threatening condition associated with kidney failure, took to the streets on March 29 to protest the local government’s steep price hike for dialysis treatment, part of a long-planned healthcare reform introduced on March 25. Photos posted online show that they marched with banners and blocked traffic to one of the city’s key intersections for several hours. The local government’s knee-jerk reaction was true to script: dispersing the crowd with police and ordering local media to ignore the protest completely. But after evidence of such a prominent display of public discontent invariably found its way into China’s vociferous blogosphere, causing an online uproar in support of the patients, the local government abruptly reversed course and announced a suspension of the healthcare reform.

That would be the end of the story for any other Chinese city. In fact, it’s par for the course nowadays — Chinese officialdom bowing to public pressure is nothing new in the age of social media. In recent years, numerous NIMBY (i.e. not in my backyard) protests, in which citizens demonstrated against the building of undesirable facilities like chemical plants in their community, ended with the capitulation of local governments and the abandonment of construction plans.

But Chongqing is different. The city is intricately linked to the name of Bo Xilai, who served as the Communist party chief of the city from 2007 until his dramatic downfall in 2012, and netizens commenting on the latest healthcare reform protests expressed nostalgia for him and his brand of populism. Prior to his purge, Bo built what became known as the “Chongqing model” of governance: he used his “rock star”-like charisma to build a personality cult, organized large-scale campaigns to sing revolutionary songs from the era of late Communist strongman Mao Zedong, linked himself publicly with leftist ideology that diverged from the central government’s official line of economic reformism, and borrowed heavily to fund crowd-pleasing public work projects like fixing up decrepit housing and planting trees, all the while using the police force as his personal henchmen to remove critics. Nowadays, Bo is languishing with a life sentence in the Qincheng prison near Beijing, after being convicted of corruption, bribery and abuse of power in September 2013.

While China’s reform-minded liberals had always dismissed the Chongqing model as demagoguery, attempts to survey online sentiment in Chongqing during Bo’s tenure indicated that the model was highly welcome among the city’s 32 million residents. Now, three years after Bo’s expulsion from China’s political center stage, Chongqing residents still seemed to remember him with fondness, a sentiment which reemerged when the recent healthcare reform stoked public anger. After the uremia protests, Chongqing’s Internet users interpreted the healthcare reforms as a bad policy made by uncaring officials that would result in higher out-of-pocket costs for everyone, and many once again took to the Internet to sing Bo’s praise (it didn’t seem to matter that the the reforms also proposed to reduce prices on a number of treatment and tests). “I only remember Bo out of all of the officials who came to Chongqing,” one Chongqing resident wrote on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform. “He was actually concerned with the people’s welfare.” “Party secretary Bo, the people of Chongqing miss you,” wrote another. “No one in Chongqing has ever said anything bad about Bo,” chimed in another Weibo user, “after these few years we have become even more grateful for him.” Many of the most up-voted comments among the 11,000 on a popular Weibo thread about the uremia protests were pro-Bo Xilai.

Perhaps even more troubling to the Chinese government are digs against President Xi Jinping’s record combined with nostalgia for Bo. “Chongqing’ers miss Bo, because people have found out that Xi has not done anything good after he took power,” one user complained. “Living standards fell, income dropped, prices soared, now we only have political purges in the name of anti-corruption and Xi’s wife’s pretty clothes.” Another agreed, writing, “We don’t need investigation of corrupt officials, world-leading science programs, or weapons to intimidate the United States or EU, we want affordable housing, free schooling and healthcare, and no pollution in our food and water.” Another Chongqing-based user commented“Under Bo, the people were precious, but after Bo left, the people have become grass, and the Party mowed us down.”

Much of the online discussion about Bo — a condemned man in the eyes of the ruling Communist Party — is cloaked in the code language used on Chinese social media to dodge web censorship. Users sympathetic to Bo, often neo-Maoists or those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, obliquely refer to him as “Secretary Bo,” “Uncle Bo,” or simply, “that man.” To be sure, not everything about the man is verboten — Xi’s “Chinese dream” program has elements borrowed from the Chongqing model, including an emphasis on general welfare, making nods to Maoists, and cultivating a people-friendly image. But at least in his rhetoric, Xi has committed to reforms as a way to achieve further growth, cut back red tape, and improve citizen livelihoods. That is still fundamentally at odds with Bo’s leftist approach of raising large amounts of government money through heavy borrowing to fund blockbuster initiatives.

As the short-lived uremia protest has shown, there remains a groundswell of popular sentiment in China for a leftist strongman à la Bo Xilai. In all likelihood, Bo’s career is dead (though in Chinese history, at least one deposed emperor staged a coup from imprisonment and restored his position). But even as a political ghost, he still has the unique ability to haunt China. ​

AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @rachel_tln

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.