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What’s Left, Who’s Right?

Why did the Chinese Communists purge Bo Xilai?

Apr 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 28 • By ROSS TERRILL
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The crisis over Bo Xilai in huge Chongqing, a city-state double the size of Switzerland with 28 million people, proves the left lives on in China, despite 35 years of Communist party flight from Maoism—and despite U.S. China specialists’ calling leftists “conservatives.” A pro-free-market right is also intellectually strong, and the Beijing government seems hesitant to attack it. Are a hundred flowers blooming? Is the party-state skillfully balancing left and right to keep politics stable and boring for the populace? Or are darker clouds on the horizon?


Bo Xilai (left), Wen Jiabao


Bo Xilai, as Communist party chief in hillside, cacophonous Chongqing, embraced the poor with housing and social benefits, encouraged red story-telling, “singing red songs,” and mass texting of messages displaying Mao’s thoughts. Bo, who boasts a famous father but has some history of opportunism, hitched his rising career to this deployment of leftist mobilization to combat crime, increase public spirit, and isolate enemies. He was successful enough to discomfort Beijing. A flamboyant politician, he made President Hu Jintao and other bigwigs in Beijing look like stick figures.

Astonishingly, on February 6, Chongqing’s police czar, Wang Lijun, one of Bo Xilai’s henchmen, fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, another major southwestern city, out of fear or with a story to tell (or both). The United States apparently denied Wang asylum, and on leaving the consulate he was at the mercy of a large, waiting Beijing security force. Bareknuckled fighting had protruded through the lovely tapestry of socialism. Few concrete charges were laid at Bo’s door, only “corruption.” Bo does have a son at the Kennedy School at Harvard, which may bother some colleagues, but then Vice President Xi Jinping has a daughter at Harvard too.

In some ways the crisis was less opaque than past shake-ups. Bo traveled as a Politburo member to Beijing for a parliament meeting, giving a cheery press conference there, yet failed to return to Chongqing or otherwise appear. The Chinese people could observe Bo’s truncated public presence, and a huge electronic buzz ensued. It was like a game in which the villain, while not especially appealing, was fun to watch; had he fallen off his high wire?

The last major purge of the left in the Chinese Communist party (CCP) was the dramatic arrest of the so-called Gang of Four, heroes turned villains of the Cultural Revolution, in the immediate aftermath of Mao’s death in September 1976. This was a historic coup d’état, but sudden and secret; the Chinese public knew nothing of the seizure of Mao’s widow and the others until they were behind bars. Count it progress that Bo and Wang have not been declared counterrevolutionaries, as Mao styled Deng Xiaoping in April 1976 and Deng styled the Gang of Four. Nor was Bo said to have tried to split the party, as Deng said of party chief Zhao Ziyang after the Tiananmen Square crisis in 1989.

In outcome, Bo’s purge will probably have more in common with Deng’s quiet demotion of Mao’s chosen successor Hua Guofeng in the early 1980s or Zhao’s house arrest for the duration after Tiananmen. Bo has been relieved of the top post in Chongqing, but Beijing has not yet said he is guilty of crimes.

More remarkable than Bo’s dismissal—surely triggered by his clash with Wang and the embarrassing incident inside an American consulate—was that his neo-Maoist policies flourished for five years in a Chinese bastion (close to Deng’s birthplace, as it happens). Nevertheless, for whatever reason, Premier Wen Jiabao chose to warn in alluding to the Chongqing shake-up that the Cultural Revolution must not recur.

Bo was replaced by Zhang Dejiang, a Politburo protégé of Hu Jintao with the sparkling background of an education in North Korea. Police czar Wang was replaced by a cop from Qinghai Province, long part of Tibet and desolate home to numerous labor camps. But are left and right really contending in China?


Last year I lectured at the School of Marxism in a major Chinese university. Many students were socialist believers anxious about the future of Marxism in today’s world, as well they might be. Coming out of the classroom, a professor from a different school, political science, who had escorted me, complained in English, “That class and its teacher are so conservative!”

“They’re leftists,” I rejoined.

“Of course they are, but don’t American China specialists call our leftists conservatives?” The Chinese professor had picked this up from the New York Times.

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