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On the Wang Lijun Incident: Who’s the Biggest Loser?

February 16, 2012

18th Party Congress Watch (4)

Gao Wenqian, HRIC Senior Policy Advisor

Right before Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States, the Chinese government’s own backyard was ablaze with this startling event: Wang Lijun (王立军), the recently-sacked chief of the Public Security Bureau in Chongqing, and “crime-fighting hero” and axman of national fame, went to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, where he “stayed” for a day. This was nothing short of a big bomb that sent shock waves through the Beijing political circles. The person who took a direct hit is Wang’s former boss, Bo Xilai (薄熙来), Party secretary of Chongqing and aspirant for a seat in the Politburo’s nine-member Standing Committee, the core of political power in China.

The incident has upset the arrangement of the power transition forthcoming in the 18th Party Congress later this year. What’s more, to the great embarrassment of the Party, this internal political fight has surfaced as an international incident. The event seems to bear out an old saying, “Chaos under heaven begins in Sichuan” (天下未乱蜀先乱).

Bo Xilai is a heavy-weight among the Party’s princelings. In Chongqing, Bo broke with Party officialdom traditions: he was not content with just carrying out orders from Beijing. Instead, he used the “Praise Communism, Crack Down on Crime” (唱红打黑) campaign as a stepping stone to higher power. He created what he calls the Chongqing Model—praise of Communism, crackdowns on crime, work projects for the people—made it a success, and won applause from the political left (loosely equivalent to the political right in the West). But his thirst for power is too great: he violates the unwritten rules of the power game, overplays his hand, lacks humility, heeds only himself, is unscrupulous, and terrifies many. 

Wang Lijun was once Bo’s confidante and trusted adjutant, and served Bo faithfully and unstintingly. But at the final moment, Wang was abandoned by Bo. As a result, Wang took a big risk by turning against and bringing big trouble to Bo.

Wang Lijun’s move has disrupted the fragile balance between the princelings and the Communist Youth League Faction, or tuanpai (part of what has been called the “populist coalition”).1 Within the Party, different factions have begun their maneuvers, doing what it takes to turn the situation in their favor. Bo Xilai’s supporters include Jiang Zemin, the former General Secretary of the Party, who is of “half-princeling” background.

Back in the old days, Bo Xilai’s father, Bo Yibo (薄一波), a senior Party leader, had done Jiang great favors, including helping Jiang force out his competition for the General Secretary at a critical moment, thereby enabling Jiang to ascend to the throne. To return these favors, Jiang handpicked Bo Yibo’s son, Bo Xilai, as a member of the Politburo. Now that Bo Xilai is in trouble, being attacked from all sides, Jiang obviously doesn’t want to see Bo, an important princeling, sacrificed. But because the matter has escalated, and Wang Lijun is now in custody, Jiang is wary about stepping up to rescue Bo Xilai. He can only wait out the storm before coming forward to smooth things out.     

For Hu Jintao, leader of the Youth League Faction, the Wang Lijun incident is a godsend. Hu has basically idled away his ten years in office, without any accomplishments to speak of, only social conflict that has intensified to an unprecedented level and domestic and foreign affairs that are plagued with difficulties. The prospective princeling successors are extremely dissatisfied with Hu, openly denouncing him as “playing pass-the-parcel with a time bomb” and caring only about his own safe landing, while leaving a mess for them to clean up. This situation has greatly weakened Hu’s bargaining position in the impending power transition. But the Wang incident now gives Hu a chance to counter the princelings and reverse his passive position in the power struggle. This is evident in the unusual official reaction to the incident, one that is using public opinion to draw the fire toward Bo Xilai: the authorities have relaxed the parameters of what can be said online; permitted discussions of the incident on microblogs; and even allowed postings about Bo Xilai’s wife, Gu Kailai (谷开来), to stay up. All this would never have happened in the past.

However, how to deal with Bo Xilai is Hu’s current challenge. He must carefully calibrate his move or he might get himself in trouble. Bo Xilai has many connections in the Party because of his father. (His father was skilled at political maneuvering, and earned the nickname “About-face Bo” [薄老转] within the Party). After having been immersed in the Party bureaucracy for many years, Bo’s connections are deeply rooted and intertwined. More important, Bo has already made his name in politics and is the standard-bearer of the left wing. Any mishandling by Hu could lead to an even greater political earthquake. This is not what Hu—who only wants a safe landing—wishes to see happen. At the same time, judging from his personality, it doesn’t seem that Hu has the courage or the capability to knock down Bo Xilai in one strike. And judging from Bo’s personality, it is inevitable that when backed into a corner, he would fight back like a trapped animal.

Furthermore, the left wing faction that Bo Xilai represents is a card that Hu can play to balance out the open-minded forces within in the Party. Therefore, Hu would most likely use the excuse of investigating Bo Xilai to put him on the backburner, leaving this hot potato for Xi Jinping to deal with. This would enable Hu to kill two birds with one stone: block Bo from the Standing Committee and check the momentum of the princelings for a total takeover. That is, Hu would use Bo Xilai as a bargaining chip to force back the Jiang faction (which wants Hu out of power entirely after the 18th Party Congress) and stay on as the head of the Military Commission after stepping down as General Secretary and President.  

In fact, the biggest loser in the Wang Lijun incident is not Bo Xilai, but the current one-party system in China. This incident has caused the complete bankruptcy of the “core socialist values” which have been carefully-crafted and vigorously-promoted by the authorities. Its repercussion is comparable to that of the Lin Biao Incident2 in the late 1970s, which led to the demise of the Cultural Revolution and the mythology surrounding Mao Zedong.

Think: a high-sounding senior government official from a “red Chongqing” had to seek help from the U.S. Consulate! Who would still believe in these “core values”? Besides, the authorities have made major investments in building a system to maintain stability, stopping at nothing to suppress the different voices in civil society. And in the end, the real “colluders with hostile foreign forces,” as they were called during the Cultural Revolution, turned out to be none other than party insiders. Shouldn’t those in power be doing some soul searching?

1. The Communist Youth League Faction refers to those who rise up through the ranks of the Communist Party as distinct from the princelings, who are born into the power elite. It is generally associated with Hu Jintao. ^

2. Lin, Mao Zedong’s handpicked successor, and members of his family died in a plane crash in 1971, after Mao accused Lin of plotting a coup to topple him. ^