Bo Xilai affair a turning point for China's top leadership


ChongqingBridge HEADLINER
A rain-spattered window and misty bridge in Chongqing, October 2011, one month before the death of British businessman Neil Heywood.
Photo credit: 
Flickr/International Hydropower Association;

A revelatory story emerged in China this spring: Bo Xilai, Chongqing’s powerful Communist Party head, was stripped of both his post and party membership and accused of shocking abuses of power, including covering up his wife’s alleged involvement in the death of a shadowy British businessman.

On May 2, the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center held a special seminar to make sense of what this unusual high-level scandal could mean for the future of China’s current political system, erupting just months ahead of a once-in-a-generation leadership transition.

Minxin Pei, director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College, said the scandal is a severe test for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which balances on a knife’s edge as it prepares to replace the majority of its Politburo members—the highest CCP echelon. The Bo affair has exposed the existence of serious corruption at a very high level of government, calling into question the party’s image and credibility.

“This is the biggest threat to party unity since 1989,” he said.

More potentially damaging still, however, is the negative light it has cast on China’s overall political system. The scandal has revealed weaknesses and loopholes in the power structure, and the government’s poor crisis management skills.

“The Bo Xilai affair is the beginning of the end of the Tiananmen era,” Pei said. “Twenty years from now, historians will make this point.”

Xueguang Zhou, a professor of sociology and Freeman Spogli Institute senior fellow, agreed with Pei’s analysis that Bo’s fall from power has tarnished the party’s image and deeply disrupted the cohesiveness of its upper leadership.He spoke also of the outpouring of criticism on social media sites for the government’s inability to reign in corruption—so much so that censors have not been able to keep up.

“These voices have been so fierce in criticizing the top leadership that it has huge implications for the emergence of China’s civil society,” Zhou said. 

He expressed his concern for the future of local politics after the smoke from the Bo affair has cleared. Although it is widely acknowledged in China that shady political dealings go hand-in-hand with local-level politics, positive innovations in governance also frequently occur at the city and county level.

“I hope that local governments will still have the power to experiment,” he said.

After all is said and done, China’s top leadership is at a major turning point. Only time will tell the full impact of the fall of Bo Xilai, both during this year’s power transition and the evolution of China’s government structure in the coming decades.