04/27/2012 12:44 pm ET Updated Jun 27, 2012

Bo Xilai: China's Newt Gingrich?

The Bo Xilai affair has all the makings of a truly great political scandal... or a mediocre thriller. But the real value of this sordid tale is the divide it demonstrates between the manner in which the Western public and the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) top leadership understand China's politics. Prior to the scandal, Mr. Bo was the closest thing the CCP had to a Western media darling. He was the only Chinese leader to be named one of TIME's most influential people in 2010, was described as "cosmopolitan," "mafia-busting," "[c]harismatic, handsome and majestically tall," and favourably compared to his "his plodding, lackluster bureaucratic brethren." Bo's charisma, pandering and height appealed to foreigners because it, superficially, made him seem like a Western politician.

For those unfamiliar with the affair, the details are as follows: Bo Xilai was party secretary of the city-cum-province of Chongqing, the son of a party elder, and thought to be bound for the pinnacle of political power. His wife had been a prominent lawyer and their son has been educated at Harrow, Oxford, and Harvard. Neil Heywood, a British businessman living in China who seems to have been closely related to the family's business dealings, was found dead in a hotel in Chongqing in November of last year. "Overconsumption of alcohol" was the official cause of death, but no autopsy was conducted. On February 6th, Chongqing's Police Chief, Wang Lijun, fled to the American consulate in Chengdu. There, Mr. Wang apparently "told the Americans that he had been dismissed as police chief after confronting Mr. Bo with his suspicions of a link between his boss's family and Mr. Heywood's death, and that he feared for his own life." On 15 March, Bo was dismissed from his position as Chongqing party chief and its related posts. In late March, an apparently entirely baseless rumor that Mr. Bo had engineered an attempted coup emerged on the Chinese internet and was quickly suppressed. On April 10th, Mr. Bo was suspended from the party's Central Committee and Politburo and it was announced that his wife was under investigation for "suspicion of homicide" related to Mr Heywood's death.

As I argue elsewhere, it was the attention he attracted rather than actual misdeeds that chiefly account for Mr. Bo's fall. Nevertheless, It would be wrong to idealize him and misinterpret his downfall as the CCP crushing a crusading reformer. If Bo looks familiar to Western eyes it is because he embodied much of the worst of Western politicians. Certain elements of his efforts to address inequality in China were admirable if not always effective, such as spending on social housing. But, at best, his support for state-owned enterprise and Mao-era culture was regressive pandering. Worse still, he allegedly flouted the rule of law in his signature crusade against organized crime and corrupt officials in Chongqing, a political ploy designed to cast a negative light on his predecessor and political opponent, Wang Yang, and take advantage of popular resentment against corruption. In light of the fact that his son was living in a five-star hotel in central Oxford and his wife was probably using Mr. Heywood to funnel money out of China, this looks like cynical politicking so hypocritical it would make Newt Gingrich blush. While the details relating to Mr. Heywood have come to light only because of the scandal, enough was already known about Mr. Bo's tactics that TIME, and the Western media in general, should have demonstrated better judgement.

If there is a hope among China's leadership, it might be Mr. Bo's predecessor Wang Yang. While Mr. Wang may not have Bo's populist flair, he appears to have made some real, though small, political reforms and comes from a working-class background rather than a communist aristocracy. The lesson here should be to prefer a boring but reformist technocrat over a "populist with an iron fist," even one who "oozes charisma and charm."