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Tom Doctoroff

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The Pragmatic Purge of Bo Xilai

Posted: 04/12/2012 9:20 am

Bo Xilai, the populist former Chongqing chief recently purged from China's Politburo, was a dangerous, recidivistic force in Chinese politics. His fate, archaic execution notwithstanding, should be cheered.

Yes, his ouster reveals the dark side of the country's cloak-and-dagger leadership. Beyond Internet rumors, the public is still in the dark regarding his transgressions. Recitative, propagandistic chants about the "rule of law" are misleading. Upcoming investigations of corruption and the death of Neil Heywood, a British expat with close ties to his family, smack of skittish palace intrigue. The government's clampdown on microblog postings sympathetic to Bo, not to mention suddenly patchy Internet service, reinforces Western fantasies that China's power structure is fragile, fatally riven by factionalism, on the brink of civil war. In advance of a leadership transition later this year, the Party seems as brittle as ever.

Perhaps, but not likely. But Bo Xilai's brand of populism was a threat to the nation. He championed the interests of Everyman, but his modus operandi was steeped in Cultural Revolution hysteria. The flip side of massive investment in low-income housing was manipulation of economic insecurity. His anti-mafia zeal, heralded as a campaign against corruption, was a bid to monopolize power within the Party, exacerbating an accountability deficit that tarnishes credibility amongst both rich and poor. His "red song" campaigns, reactionary homages to the Cult of Mao that continue even now to chill both foreigners and mainlanders. To advance his own agenda, he tapped into a latent but enduring impulse to worship, and blindly follow, imperial god-kings, false leaders whose anti-rational policies lead to disaster.

When Deng Xiaoping rose to power, the Communists rejected cultish hagiography in favor of future focus. Deng was a quintessentially Chinese pragmatist; his maxims about "black or white cats" and "crossing rivers by feeling stones" resonate deeply. He imposed a scientific economic model -- central management of key resources, liberalization of non-strategic industries, gradual urbanization, solicitation of foreign investment, and mercantilist foreign policy -- that is still effective, albeit in need of reform. "Socialism with Chinese characteristics," warts and all, continues to work. According to the United Nations' International Fund for Agriculture Development, between 1978 and 2008, per capita income increased six times and the number of rural residents living in absolute poverty -- that is, on less than U.S. $1.50 per day -- decreased from 260 million to 16 million. China is creating a middle class that will reshape twenty-first-century industry and commerce. The Communist Party, despite its heavy hand, has street cred. Unless growth collapses, rather than simply decelerates, citizens will grudgingly support national leaders.

Pragmatism and incrementalism have become bulwarks against extremism. Chinese society has evolved since the misadventures of the Great Leap Forward, perhaps the most destructive and colossal misallocation of resources in human history, and the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong's megalomaniacal and ill-fated attempt to reshape the nation in his image. China's post-Revolution leftist lurches were historically anomalous, instigated as a dazed country emerged from 150 years of decay into an unfamiliar Western hegemony. Today, Beijing's power structure has returned to form. It dismisses breakthrough as destabilizing, inherently counter-productive. The body politic prizes consensual moderation and this instinct is now institutionally embedded in the Party's decision-making and leadership selection.

Make no mistake. The Communist Party is no white knight. Corruption is endemic. More than 150,000 "incidents" take place every year, most protesting a non-transparent decision-making apparatus that tramples on the constitution rights of citizens and looks that other way when provincial and local cadres confiscate land and property from unprotected individuals subject to epic eminent domain abuses. As it struggles, not always nobly, to both reinvent itself into an entity subject to institutional checks and balances and orchestrate a "rebalancing" between competing interests, the Party confronts a treacherous obstacle course.

Policy makers are not naive -- they also know that reform is not only fraught with danger but also imperative. Without it, labor mobility, already slowing as evidenced by rising wages, will stop. What does the Party need to do? There must be a massive reallocation of wealth from the cities to the countryside so peasants feel secure enough to leave villages and settle in urban areas. This will require two fundamental changes: reform of the hukou system, which keeps migrant workers from collecting the generous benefits only city residents receive; and land reform. Regarding the latter, genuine change would involve allowing farmers to buy, and cash in on, the farmland they do not yet own and relocate permanently to cities. Real reform on both fronts has barely begun, impeded by left-wing dogma and fears of upsetting a middle class whose tax bills would have to rise to fund restructuring.

In this challenging context, the last thing China and its people need is a rabble-rousing leader like Bo Xilai. Bo's 90s-era performance as Mayor of Dalian, a wealthy city in Shandong province, was impressive but, in recent years, his true colors have emerged. Modern China, struggling to integrate itself into global institutions sustained by accountable and responsive governance, has no place for his destructive narcissism.

What do the masses think? Unfortunately, independent public opinion surveys are not in the cards. And the government's paranoid reaction to on-line debate suggests that Mr. Bo has, at the very least, many supporters who regard him as an advocate of the little guy. However, I suspect most citizens (and officials) support his downfall. Chinese believe stability is the platform on which progress is constructed. Whenever I ask mainlanders to define "Chinese culture," they mention zhong yong, an avoidance of extremes, or the "middle way." The masses are suspicious of their government but the relationship between people and Party is co-dependent. But the former have no choice but to have "faith" in mandarins to maintain stability, to chart a gradual course of reform, one that requires a sensitive management of competing interests. China's cautiously optimistic body politic recognizes that lurches, to the right or left, are counter-productive and dangerous.

The Party, it must be hoped, acted before passions of Mr. Bo's acolytes became toxic.

The cultural context of this opinion piece is explored more fully in my forthcoming book, "What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism, and China's Modern Consumer," to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in May.

 
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