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A Tale of Torture and Politics in Chongqing

Known as the “two cannons,” Bo Xilai and Wang Yang have very different ideas about the future of China. Bo is the Communist Party Chief of Chongqing, and Wang holds the same position in Guangdong. Bo advocates a Maoist revival for China, a new cultural revolution; Wang promotes political reform. Both are candidates for positions on the next Politboro Standing Committee, China’s highest political body.

Bo is in a little trouble. For years his administration took a “sing red, smash black” approach to governance. Billboards across Chongqing declared “Sing red songs, read classics, tell stories, spread mottos!” As the Financial Times reports:

Commercials on the municipal television network have been replaced by films and soap operas about Communist party history and propaganda. At state-owned enterprises, government departments and schools, staff and students must sing ‘red songs’, praising the party. Even prisoners are required to sing the songs and study communist classics, and their progress is noted.

“Smash black” was the darker side of Bo’s administration. For years, private businessmen were targeted as “mafia bosses,” robbed of their assets, locked up and tortured, and their were families attacked and similarly imprisoned. Li Jun was one of those businessmen. He was arrested in December 2009, spent months in prison, and was cruelly tortured. Today he is living off donations from human rights groups, on the run from the long reach of the Chinese police. Not long ago he was a billionaire living comfortably with his family. His story has been corroborated by a number of lawyers working with other businessmen whom Li saw in prison. From hiding, he spoke to the FT:

The Chongqing model is nothing but a new red terror in which Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun [Chongqing’s chief of police] trampled on the law and human rights, attacked their political enemies and took whatever they wanted in order to enhance their power.

Political insiders say Bo’s campaign against “mafia bosses” is an attack on the legacy of Wang, his predecessor as Communist Party chief in Chongqing and his main rival for a seat on the Politboro Standing Committee. Many of those targeted by the “smash black” campaign were prominent businessmen under Wang . Under torture, Li was shown a list of names and told to accuse them of illegal activities. Wang’s former deputy police chief was executed in 2010 after being found guilty of corruption and protecting organized crime, which boosted the “smash black” campaign and Bo’s reputation with it. After the execution, red banners reading “Wen Qiang’s Death makes ordinary people and Chongqing peaceful” were draped in central Chongqing.

Li, the disgraced businessman, told the FT:

I am living evidence of the dark secrets of the Chongqing crackdown. . . . My case is a warning to the world of what could happen if Bo Xilai takes power.

The scandal around his very detailed account of torture, imprisonment, and harassment at the hands of Bo’s administration and police force has so far been confined to the Western press and tightly monitored within China. Seven of the nine current members of the Politburo are expected to resign in November, and Bo remains a high-profile candidate for one of the vacated seats.

Earlier today Via Meadia reported on China’s efforts to boost domestic consumption through increased government spending and expensive social programs. Bo’s “Chongqing model” entailed the confiscation of assets belonging to private businessmen like Li, which were used to pay for government services and fund state-owned enterprises. Spinning this as a campaign against “illegal” businesses and “criminal gangs” made it seem legitimate. As government spending increases in the future, will the Chongqing model be replicated elsewhere in China? A powerful indication will come in November, if Bo ascends to the Politboro.

Whatever happens to Mr. Bo, he has broken new ground in Chinese politics, developing a local power base to project a controversial but in some circles appealing persona onto the national stage. He will likely not be the last Chinese figure to experiment with unconventional, high risk approaches. Public opinion is becoming more important in China; charisma and populism are going to play a much larger role in its politics as time goes by.

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  • If his police chief had not defected to the U.S. embassy, we would never have found out a thing about what was going on in that particular province. What about the others? Is China a thugocracy?

  • And so a new warlord has achieved prominence. That’s no surprise. They have plagued China for centuries. What’s really important here is what this says about the central government. Is it so weak that it must try to co-opt him? Or so weak that it can’t resist him? Or so strong that it simply doesn’t care? My money is on weakness. Look for more of these political and/or military regional bosses to pop up in the next few months and hope that their mutual antipathies stay contained within China’s borders. As the old Chinese saying goes: May you live in interesting times. We’re there!

  • “In China the underworld and officialdom have interpenetrated and become one. Criminal elements have become officialized as officials have become criminalized. Underworld chiefs carry tittles in the National People’s Congress and the People’s Political Consultative Conference, while civil officials rely on the underworld to keep the lid on local society.” Liu Xiaobo

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