In his nationally televised farewell address last week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao urged his country to safeguard its tremendous economic gains by adopting a more liberal political structure. Failure to do so, warned Wen, could cause the country to descend into the chaos of another Cultural Revolution. The next day, in timing that was almost certainly not a coincidence, Bo Xilai—a popular Communist Party chief from the province of Chongqing—was sacked. Bo had accumulated significant influence in recent years, and he was widely believed to be angling for a seat on the powerful nine-member Politburo Standing Committee. He advocated for a return to Maoist principles, appropriating many of its slogans and symbols, to the extent that Chongqing came to be viewed as the “epicenter of a Maoist revival”, in the words of the LA Times.
The sacking of Bo appears to be the beginning, not the end, of an orchestrated campaign to dilute his message. The LA Times also reported a widespread crackdown on China’s leftists:
Maoist websites have been shut down, ostensibly for “maintenance.” A public park in Chongqing where retirees sang and twirled to patriotic anthems while waving red flags posted a notice saying the music was now banned because it disturbed the neighborhood. A former television host, known for his Maoist views, found his scheduled speeches abruptly canceled.
Chinese officials are clearly concerned. But the question is: concerned about what, exactly? It’s hard to tell if the agita is a result of Bo’s very public campaign for power (a novel phenomenon in China), or his Maoist policies. As with most political maneuverings in China, it may be some time before we know the answer.
Bo was as big a threat as he became to the Chinese ruling elite precisely because he stood for something. Today’s Chinese Communist Party is united within by its determination to hold onto power and the perks that come with it; it justifies itself to the public at large by pointing to rising prosperity and nationalist pride. Bo understood that people grow weary of this kind of governance, even when it works, and look for more from their governments: more ideological or religious fervor, more engagement, more drama.
Bo reached for a particularly dangerous and destructive type of politics: Wen was not wrong to remind his listeners of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. And his ambitions seem ultimately to be personal — Bo does not seem like the type to be contented with the kind of faceless, distributed power with which the Party has sought to prevent anyone assembling the kind of unlimited personal power that Mao once had.
Nevertheless, Bo was the first Chinese political leader in some time to reach out beyond the technocratic authoritarianism that currently dominates official politics and he showed that even in China genuinely political messages, however flawed, speak to the body politic in ways official ideology cannot. There is a hole in the heart of China’s political system; Bo tried to exploit it.
Now China wants to stamp out the fires Bo lit; good luck, but it is in the nature of human beings to burn.