Chongqing, mid-May, 2 weeks after popular, charismatic governor Bo Xilai (Chongqing city is considered a province) disappeared into some secret jail somewhere, his wife charged with the suspected murder of a British family friend. A month earlier he’d been sacked from his job, with Prime Minister Wen Jiaobo’s ominously announcing that a danger was brewing of a “return to the [chaos of the] Cultural Revolution.” Bo was a “high-flying princeling, a son of one of Chairman Mao’s revolutionary comrades, who hoped to become one of the top nine figures at the Communist Party Congress to be held this autumn” but his pedigree offered no protection. We were jazzed about walking into the scene of this LeCarre novel, excited to see war-time capital Chungking, and the river featured in a 1956 children’s book we read, The House of 6o Fathers, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, about a little Chinese boy swept away in a sampan during the Sino-Japanese war (who befriends a downed U.S. airman from the Flying Tigers, in nearby Hunan).
Home of Bo, famed for steep mountainous gorges beside the giant Yantze, capital of the West, Chicago-like, overnight expansion (well, over 10 years) into a hilly wonder of high-rise steel. Sichuan hotpot where even ‘medium’ is a challenge, featuring those great brain-altering peppercorns (we received 5 packages as a gift). It was a chance to think about the politics of the place–about the narratives that have taken hold around Bo, and whether (and how) ours differ from our hosts’, who lived it all up close.
I’ll add that a lecture trip with kids in tow was distracting and cost me focus. But I want them to see China. I wish I could say they’d behaved better. Earlier bedtimes would have helped. Still, they were loved (so people claimed); 4-6 student volunteers minded them over pingpong while I spoke to the largest groups ever, a nice way to finish, at Southwest and Sichuan Foreign Studies U, and having given these talks for 7 months, I have my message down. Laser focus or no, advocating for a watchdog media is as good a message as I could hope to deliver!
The first Bo narrative came from our host, a public health and contagious disease professor who cooperates with UMDNJ, a man so avid about educational exchange, he invited a journalist to talk to his lab! (-and arranged lectures in journalism departments). Each day he assigned 5 different students to accompany us, and be exposed to our crazy Western ways. He described a friend, a higher-up in Bo’s office, who said his boss would phone to rant angrily at 3 or 4 a.m. The words the friend used to describe his boss: bizarre, eccentric, cruel.
But our host cared less about that than Bo’s budget. He was glad to see him gone because he considered his public spending fiscally unsound. Did the sacking simply reflect internal Party politicking without wider resonance, or did it embody a shift in course of the giant ship called China? A shift, for sure, he said, for the better.
Another Bo narrative you won’t hear, at least we didn’t, in Chongqing: The “FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS” one. I’m wary myself when the insight on China begins that way, as in this FT analysis: “For thousands of years Chinese politics has been punctuated by violent internecine struggles played out behind palace walls but almost never have they spilled out into the public arena in such a spectacular way.”
Then there is “the Chongqing Model is Over” storyline. This is popular in investment bank notes. It suggests the neo-Maoism Bo at least mouthed (who knows what he really believed…) is done for. Like his ‘Sing Red’ campaign (folks in big groups singing old Party hymns outdoors)…we’ve seen that. Like his public investment in low-income housing, perhaps with funds confiscated from capitalist businesses, including 2 expropriated Hilton hotels. (The developer was charged with bribery and prostitution).
I don’t actually buy the “Robin Hood Is Dead” storyline. China’s growing wealth gap is a huge problem, on everyone’s lips. Keeping the lid on discontent will require more, not less, public investment, maybe in housing. And staving off much-feared economic slowdown will require continuing priming of the pump, call it neoWhatever. Third and most importantly, while Chinese President Hu Jintao, and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, are on the record opposed to subsidized low-income housing, and all sorts of state-owned-enterprise monopolies (esp in banking, where they’ve strangled small-biz development, for one), SOEs are entrenched power blocs, grown larger and more powerful through mergers, run by supermen. Those vested interests remain a powerful force in favor of more of the same. Bo or no Bo. The students and profs I spoke to in Chongqing agree, particularly about the vested interests part.
There’s widespread agreement around the narrative that Bo’s fall Highlights China’s Growing Wealth Gap. Sacking him – whatever micro-secret-faction ultimately triumphs–helps the Party overall save face. Bloomberg reported recently the Bo clan is worth at least $136 million. That “fuels perceptions of corruption in the Communist Party and deepens social tensions over China’s widening wealth gap.” So he had to go. Even if that Ferrari his Harvard son drove only once was borrowed.
Finally there’s the Bo narrative as the story of The Horrors of Succession Struggles in Secrecy–a storyline where we and the Chinese differ, because for so many here (except the rare out-and-out democracy activist), it’s hard to imagine anything else. For months, from when Bo’s deputy sought asylum at the U.S. embassy in February, till the Bo scandal itself broke in mid-March, Party leaders were utterly silent. Did this mean they were divided? Or is it just how things work when there’s no forum for political debate, no consistent operation where things proceed predictably, according to known laws? Where there’s no public method for hashing out differences in the ‘town square’ (offensive as that dialogue often becomes, in today’s America)? That absence, that silence, is perhaps the most bizarre difference from America you notice and feel here. What’s going on? Who knows. Try checking out the Weibou gossip, which may be true, but who knows? Who’s up and who’s down and why? It’s anybody’s guess. You share links, scan scholarly journals, browse (translated) perhaps-reliable Twitter feeds, for a glimpse of “truth.” Is it? Maybe! Leading up to the October Congress in which 70% of those in power will be replaced here, the stakes are high and good information—reliable, vetted, factual, accurate–is hard as ever to come by, Weibou notwithstanding. And it’s more than weird, it’s scary. As The Economist points out, authoritarian rule through backroom secret deals always carries the scent, the possible edge, of violence. “As recently as 1989, a succession struggle was waged in blood on the streets of Beijing.”