The state-owned Xinhua News Agency of China announced on March 15, 2012, shortly after the end of the annual session of the National People’s Congress, China’s Parliament, that the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CCP) has decided to remove Bo Xilai , an informal, easily accessible and populist party functionary from his post of Party chief of Southwest China's Chongqing Municipality. He continues to be in the Political Bureau of the Party Central Committee.
Bo, born in July 1949, had earlier served as the Mayor of Dalian in the Liaoning province, and then as the Governor of Liaoning and Minister of Commerce before being appointed as the Party chief of Chongqing in 2007.
He has been replaced by Zhang Dejiang a native of Tai'an in the Liaoning province. Zhang has been a member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee since 2002 and a Vice- premier in the State Council since 2008.
Between 1995 and 2007,Zhang had served as Party chief in Jilin, Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces. Both Zhang and Bo were considered protégés of Jiang Zemin, the predecessor of Hu Jintao as the President and Party General Secretary.
Bo Xilai is the son of Bo Yibo, one of the Eight Elders of the CCP, and was considered a steadily rising member of the CCP’s new leadership. Because of his easy accessibility and informal and relaxed style of interaction with the people, he was a popular figure in the world of China’s GenNext and particularly among the rapidly growing community of China’s Netizens. He had more admirers and followers in the virtual world than in the real world.
What added to his popularity was his campaign against corruption and organised crime wherever he was posted and his image of being a people-friendly party functionary, who believed that the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong had its positive aspect in its caring for the ordinary people, which should not be discarded. While pursuing a policy of double-digit economic growth, he attached importance to welfare schemes for the less-privileged people. He was perceived as a votary of a New Left movement in the party and as a Maoist without the embarrassing evils of Maoism which made the Cultural Revolution a hated phenomenon.
He did not pose a threat to the present party leadership consisting of President Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Nor was he perceived as likely to pose a threat to the new leadership consisting of Vice-President Xi Jinping, who is expected to take over from President Hu later this year and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang who is tipped to take over from Prime Minister Wen before the next NPC session in March next year.
But, Bo was a source of increasing unease and embarrassment because of his popularity in the large community of netizens, his advocacy of people-friendly economic policies, his transparent and charismatic style of leadership which was in refreshing contrast to the old style of leadership which kept a distance from the people (barring Wen) and his praise for some aspects of Mao’s policies.
Easing him out could have proved counter-productive, but the embarrassing action of Bo’s No2 Wang Lijun, the police chief, in visiting the US Consulate in Chengdu allegedly in an unsuccessful attempt to seek political asylum in the US, provided the leadership with an opportunity to tar Bo and have him eased out.
The party has taken care not to cite the action of Wang as the immediate cause of Bo’s removal. His policy mistakes have been cited as the cause for his removal. At the same time, the Party leadership is keen that Bo’s removal is not viewed by the netizens as an attempt by the leadership to prevent political reforms. In his briefing of the media on the NPC proceedings a day before the decision to sack Bo, Wen underlined the importance of political reforms without specifying what kind of reforms he had in mind and stressed the importance of preventing another Cultural Revolution.
In a speech to party cadre trainees delivered on March 1 and published in the Party media on March 16, Xi, who will also be taking over as the Party Secretary from Hu, has stressed the importance of purity of thought and party unity. It was a hint to the party cadres that Bo’s (whose name was not mentioned by Xi) policies and actions threatened to distort the party’s ideology and create disunity. "To maintain the party's ideological purity is to guarantee the unity of the party," said Xi, accusing some members of "a lack or principles and corrupt behaviour which is not conducive to the purity of the party".
Bo did not have much of a following outside the areas where he had served. He was a competent and popular regional leader who looked upon himself as having a national stature. He was politically ambitious. His undoubted following in the community of Netizens would not have been sufficient to propel him forward on his ambitious path. By cutting his wings in time, the party leadership has sought to ensure that he will not be able to take off.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies