While the Western media focuses on turmoil in the Middle East, America’s annual ritual of formalizing its insolvency, and whatever other ginned up "crisis" has our attention for the moment, a moment of truth in the world’s most populous country is being steadfastly ignored by all the Very Serious People in Washington, D.C. That’s because China’s watershed moment is unfolding in slow motion, as it has been since Mao’s death and the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976. It’s also because China just isn’t on Washington’s radar: as long as the Chinese keep buying our debt, and refrain from threatening their neighbors beyond the usual regional histrionics, the foreign policy elite is happy to keep themselves preoccupied with their usual America-centric concerns: the latest regime-change fad, Bibi Netanyahu’s most recent temper tantrum, and doing whatever it takes to appease the House of Saud.
In the meantime, a nation containing more than a billion people is on the brink of a major upheaval, one that could shatter the Chinese Communist Party and create havoc with the world economy. The latest iteration of this long-simmering climacteric is the trial of Bo Xilai, once a rising star in the Chinese Communist firmament, who has been convicted of corruption, obstruction of justice, and crimes against the Communist Party. The sentence: life in prison. That’s the end of Bo’s career, or so say all the experts cited in the Western media: "His chances of becoming a credible political player again are zero," gloats the Brookings Institution’s resident China expert, Cheng Li, to the Washington Post. Such certitude is puzzling in someone who is supposed to be conversant with Chinese history, which is replete with examples of officials purged by the central leadership who were later rehabilitated and rose again to prominence.
Indeed, the present leadership owes its power to such a radical reversal of fortunes: they are the descendants and heirs of the "revisionists" purged by Mao and the Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution, who later staged a comeback – with Mao’s help – and survived to inherit his mantle. This is a legacy of which Bo is quite well aware: his father, Bo Yibo, was jailed during the Cultural Revolution, and his mother was beaten to death by Red Guards. Paraded around with a metal plaque around his neck detailing his "crimes" at rally organized by the Gang of Four, the elder Bo – Communist veteran who had fought both the Kuomintang and the Japanese under Mao’s command – did not bow meekly before his accusers, as did so many others. He insisted "I am a loyal member of the Communist Party!" even as his accusers denounced him as a "capitalist roader," and the rally fizzled out shortly thereafter.
The senior Bo was released from prison upon Deng Xiaoping’s ascension to power, and reinstated as a full member of the Politboro, the supreme council of Chinese Communist Party leaders. He was also a member of the party’s Central Advisory Commission, a bastion of the orthodox Dengists who later clashed with supporters of Hu Yaobang, who was ultimately deposed.
In a letter to his family and supporters, Bo Junior recalls the example of his parents, who suffered so much at the hands of fanatics, and vows to follow in their footsteps. "My name will be cleared one day," he wrote, clearly invoking the example of his father who emerged from prison to become one of the "Sixteen Immortals," the core cadre of Deng’s supporters who forced China out of its self-imposed isolation and put the nation on the road to modernity.
At his trial, the ousted party leader boldly claimed he was being framed for political reasons, and disdained the charges as transparently false – "not even the worst TV script writers could come up with such plots," he quipped, "because no one would believe it!" He relentlessly interrogated witnesses, getting one Chinese businessman – said to have financed purchases of a French villa and other exotic items for his family – to admit never having informed Bo of his generosity. One by one he refuted the charges, saying his wife, Gu, had been forced to testify against him: she was convicted of murdering a British businessman last year, and given a death sentence – suspended in exchange for her testimony.
The unusual openness of the trial – the court posted videos, partial transcripts, and other details online – speaks to two factors: 1) The intention of party leaders to make an example of him and discredit him in the public eye, and 2) Widespread support for Bo not only inside the party but among the people.
As party leader of the southwestern city of Chongqing, he cracked down on rampant gangsterism, arresting hundreds of criminals and exposing their links to the party apparatus. Even more frightening to the party Establishment, as well as hand-wringing "liberals," he evoked the patriotic and leftist rhetoric of old-style Maoist ideology, recruiting platoons of attractive women who marched through the streets singing "red songs." He built public housing for the region’s hundreds of thousands of itinerant workers, while decrying growing inequality. He was a flamboyant politician who stuck out like a sore thumb in consensus-driven China, jumping out of his car to greet ordinary people, and building up a personal following that hung on his every word. He was, in short, a Western-style politician with a populist edge – and a threat to the party Establishment (and their Western backers), who determined to bring him down.
Confident, defiant, and as charming as ever, Bo defended himself at his trial as if he were running for office, pointing out that he visited every county in his Chongqing constituency and more than once highlighting the meagerness of the charges – embezzling a few million, chump change in the world of China’s elite – as proof that his political enemies were out to get him, all the while proclaiming his innocence.
What started out as a relatively open trial – which regime-supporters in China and the West tout as yet more evidence that China is rapidly embracing the "rule of law" – soon became significantly less open as transcripts were censored and a general crackdown on Internet discussion of the trial ensued. Bo was winning the battle for Chinese hearts and minds, in spite of the leadership’s best efforts.
The reason for Bo’s persistent popularity is China’s descent into such a miasma of crony capitalist corruption and odious ostentation that it makes the America of the robber barons look like the epitome of virtuous austerity. The Beijing gang is emphasizing the lurid details of alleged bribery, a narrative replete with French villas, fast cars, and foreign travel (first class, natch) to indict Bo as corrupt, but the Chinese people are quite well aware of how the political class lives and no one is shocked by accounts of Bo’s family’s wealth. Indeed, everyone knows Bo’s persecutors have even more loot at their disposal, and that corruption on a massive scale is a way of life in the insular world of the Communist "princelings."
This is the first generation of Communist leaders that has not been chosen by the founders of the modern Chinese state. Bereft of any real ideology, except a dog-eat-dog cronyism that would make Boss Tweed blush, the Chinese system embodies the worst aspects of both modern day capitalism and retro Leninism. Deploying the armed fist of the State in pursuit of unimaginable wealth, the "princelings" are the most corrupt and repulsive political elite on a planet where they face plenty of competition for that position. In a race to see who can sell China’s enormous stash of natural resources and human capital to foreigners the fastest and for the highest price, China’s ruling class has been steadily undermining their own legitimacy since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 – and no regime can get away with that for very long.
In their untrammeled hubris and sense of entitlement, the "princelings" are dancing on a tightrope stretched over an abyss. When they fall, as they will, the sound they make as they hit the ground will be the splat heard ‘round the world. This is what Bo is betting on when he says he will "wait quietly in prison" awaiting vindication – and, perhaps, a possible return to the spotlight.
I wouldn’t count him out: indeed, the current Chinese leadership may one day come to regret not imposing the death penalty. In any case, their own death sentence, in the sense that their system is doomed, has already been handed down. It only remains for the Chinese people to implement a verdict they reached long ago.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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