Murder and Money: China's Communists May Emerge Stronger from Scandal
The sex and corruption scandals surrounding Bo Xilai looked set to damage China's communists ahead of the upcoming transition of power. But the party moved quickly and decisively, and may have strengthened its hold on power in the process.
In the end, it was a tougher and more clear-cut decision than most had expected. On Friday evening, it was reported that former Politburo member Bo Xilai had been expelled from the Chinese Communist Party and will face charges for abuse of power, bribe-taking and "illicit relationships with numerous females."
Despite being shunned by the party, as China's most charismatic politician, Bo can count himself lucky that he was not part of the leadership about 50 years ago, as his father was. Under Mao, Bo would have been executed.
Still, under Mao, no one would have questioned the resolve and rigidity of the party, either. Indeed, some have voiced doubts about President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, the cautious, hesitant leaders of the so-called Fourth Generation. Bo, ever since becoming party secretary in the southwestern Chinese megacity of Chongqing in 2007, stood for the powerful leftist wing of the party, the neo-Maoists.
Until recently, it was not clear to China experts how powerful his cohorts were and whether he might even be able to make a comeback with their help. When the scandal involving Bo broke this spring and he was ousted from his positions, Beijing was filled with rumors of a possible coup. And when his wife, Gu Kailai, was put on trial in the summer and confessed to the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, the Chinese asked themselves whether Bo might not be assembling a group of conspirators somewhere in the capital.
In the third week of September, a guilty verdict was pronounced against Wang Lijun, a former police chief who had played a key role in the scandal surrounding Bo. Xi Jinping, who is to be named the new party leader in November, had disappeared a short time earlier, leading many to speculate about whether Bo's supporters might have had something to do with it. Even during the recent anti-Japanese protests, Bo's supporters saw no reason to hide from public view, marching alongside the other demonstrators and holding up images of both Mao and Bo.
Is the Party Weaker or Stronger?
But the doubters proved to be wrong. Despite the perceptions of its weakness, the leadership generation headed by Hu and Wen is closing the Bo Xilai chapter before the next generation comes to power in November. It will be a short trial, because the verdict has already been decided: Bo is history.
But what does his case say about the future of the Communist Party, whose authoritarian rule over the world's most dynamic country can certainly be viewed as the biggest political anachronism of our time?
Many believe that the party has been severely damaged. In a SPIEGEL interview, artist and dissident Ai Weiwei speaks of a "truly dramatic situation" and a "rift in the party." On September 27, Ai lost a second and final appeal against a $2.4 million (1.8 million) fine for alleged tax evasion.
The scope of corruption within the Communist Party and the circumstances under which it was exposed are unprecedented in the party's history. In addition to being accused of wiretapping politicians, Bo allegedly moved a lot of money abroad -- certainly enough for his son to be driving a Porsche in the United States. From now on, every rumor will be treated as the truth, at least initially, even if it isn't true. This poses a risk to the stability of the system, which is an element of the party's constant mantra. Besides, the global economy is dependent on the stability of only a handful of countries, and one of them is China.
Should anyone among China's Communists remember Marx's teacher, the German philosopher Georg Hegel, perhaps he or she will find comfort in the notion that, even in the case of Bo Xilai, dialectics could prevail in the end.
In the West, it may seem self-evident that the party, even under weak leadership, has parted ways with a bad apple of his stature. But many in China are impressed by the party's actions. What at first glance would seem to be a catastrophe for the party could ultimately solidify its control. "I would not have expected his case to be handed over to the courts," says regime critic Li Datong.
"Putting a Politburo member of his caliber on trial is a sign of authority," says Hu Xingdou, a Chinese economist and reformer.
The 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party will begin on Nov. 8, two days after the US presidential election. The public has been waiting for the government to announce the date for weeks. Xi Jinping -- who, like the fallen Bo, is considered a "princeling," or a son of one of Mao's close associates -- will succeed Communist Party General Secretary and President Hu Jintao, a consistently lackluster engineer who began his career in the Communist youth organization.
Ten years ago, when the reins were passed from the Third to the Fourth Generation, then-President Jiang Zemin remained in power for a while, both behind the scenes and as the chairman of the powerful military commission.
This time, says Xingdou, the outgoing party leader will not be following in Jiang's footsteps. "If there is anything good to be said about Hu Jintao, it's the fact that he doesn't cling to power," Xingdou says. "For him, it's the party that counts."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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