With the end of Bo Xilai’s trial, is Xi Jinping co-opting the ‘Chongqing model’?

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It’s been perhaps the most sensational rise and fall of a top Chinese official in a generation, but the corruption trial against former Chongqing party leader Bo Xilai (薄熙来) wrapped up this week with plenty of surprises, China Flag Iconeven if his guilty verdict for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power, is all but assured.

On the final day of what has been a sensation hearing by Chinese standards, Bo accused a top aide of becoming romantically involved with his wife, capping five days of what has been a spirited defense by one of China’s most charismatic 21st century party leaders.  Far from showing remorse, Bo (pictured above) has vigorously denied the charges and defended his actions:

He said he never cared for money. “The long johns that I’m wearing now were bought by my mother in the 1960s,” Bo said, suggesting he did not approve of the lifestyle Gu had created for their son, Bo Guagua.  “I have been working like a machine. I really don’t have time to care about air tickets, hotel expenses and travel expenses,” Bo said. He added: “The country did not pick me because I am a good accountant.”

That Bo has been allowed to mount such a public (and political) defense is not surprising, given his status as one of the second-generation ‘princelings’ of the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党).  Even if Bo goes to prison for a decade or longer, the trial will have helped to cement his image as the leader of a ‘New Left’ movement within Chinese politics and society.

But what does that mean for the ‘Chongqing model’ that Bo championed as party secretary in Chongqing from 2007 to 2012?

The ‘Chongqing model’ is a vaguely neo-Maoist approach to governing China that involves a redoubling of state power and control, strengthening state-owned enterprises and aggressively attacking organized crime, while bringing back some truly unique vestiges of the era of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛泽东), such as encouraging the singing of revolutionary-era songs.  It’s often contrasted against the ‘Guangdong model’ — a leadership style that encourages private development to blossom instead of through state-sponsored economic policy and at least a passing respect for the rule of law and other institutional reforms.

You can place the two models on the familiar left-right ideological axis — the Chongqing model prioritizes equitable distribution among all classes, the Guangdong model prioritizes the highest economic growth possible.  In reality, however, the line between the two models is blurrier.  Though the ‘Guangdong model’ is associated with the relatively liberal former Guangdong party chair Wang Yang (汪洋), now a vice premier (though not a full member of the Politburo Standing Committee) in Xi’s government, it was Wang who served for two years as Chongqing party chair as Bo’s direct predecessor.  Realistically, the differences among China’s political elite remain smaller than their shared values.  Just as there’s little chance that China will return to the days of Mao-era socialist state planning, there’s also little evidence that economic liberalization and reform has led (or will lead in the future) to greater political freedom.

Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal reported that Xi Jinping (习近平), who took power as Chinese president earlier this year after assuming leadership last November as the general secretary of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, is also lurching to the left in the first year of what is expected to be his ten-year stewardship of the People’s Republic of China:

A week earlier, [Xi] went to a village from which Mao attacked Beijing in 1949. There, Mr. Xi vowed that “our red nation will never change color.”

It isn’t just Mr. Xi’s rhetoric that has taken on a Maoist tinge in recent months. He has borrowed from Mao’s tactical playbook, launching a “rectification” campaign to purify the Communist Party, while tightening limits on discussion of ideas such as democracy, rule of law and enforcement of the constitution.

Xi’s most high-profile campaign as president to date is an effort to root out corruption within the government and the CCP in the aftermath of the Bo scandals and revelations last year of widespread corruption stemming from former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝), who had previously been the most popular of China’s previous generation of leaders, known for his common touch and down-to-earth manner.  After Xi publicly appeared at a relatively austere meal in Hebei province last December — in contrast to the sumptuous banquets of years past, complete with baijiu and Western wine and Chinese culinary delicacies like shark’s fin soup — the slogan ‘four dishes and one soup’ quickly captured the new attitude that Xi hoped to inspire through the party’s ranks.

While Xi’s anti-corruption campaign might not be dissimilar to Mao’s own ‘rectification’ campaigns in the 1970s, it’s not necessarily inconsistent with the reform instincts of the party’s more liberal leaders, either.  But there are indications that Xi may be lurching even further to the left — for example, the Party’s propaganda department this week ordered all of Chinese journalists to take two days of classes in Marxism.

Zachary Keck at The Diplomat argues that Xi and China’s new premier Li Keqiang (李克强) have been undeniably influenced by Bo and the ‘Chongqing model’ in both style (e.g., Xi’s centralization of power) and substance (e.g., Li’s effort to increase China’s urbanization):

Like Bo, Xi also presents himself as someone who could easily intermingle with the Chinese masses. He reduced extravagances while traveling in country, trips, often speaks to seemingly random and ordinary Chinese and even eats in the cafeteria with the grunts while visiting military bases. He has sought to project the same “rock star” type image as Bo while traveling abroad with his famous and fashionable wife, Peng Liyuan, herself prone to impromptu gestures like jumping on stage to join the band for a song during state dinners put on for her and her husband.

Meanwhile, The Economist has been at the forefront of reporting about the mysterious ‘Document Number Nine’ circulating through top Communist Party circles that is purported to criticize neoliberalism and calls for more aggressive measures to subdue subversion within Chinese society — certainly the opposite of a call for greater economic or even political liberalization:

The message of Document Number Nine can be divined from official accounts of the secret briefings given to officials. Many of these use similar language, which it is safe to assume reflects the wording of the circular. In Yueyang city in the central province of Hunan, for example, officials at such a meeting reached a consensus that because the situation at home and abroad was “complicated and changeable”, struggles in the ideological realm had therefore become “complicated, fierce and acute” (see here, in Chinese). The officials identified several threats, including calls for “Western constitutional democracy” and universal values (as Analects reported here); promotion of “civil society”; support for “neo-liberalism” (an attempt, the officials said, to change China’s “basic economic system”); and endorsement of “Western news values” (an attempt, they said, to loosen the party’s control over the news media and publishing). Such calls, the officials agreed, were “extremely malicious”.

So make of that what you will — it could be the indication of a dangerous new era in China, it could be smoke and mirrors disguising that Xi will essentially continue the same course as his predecessor, Hu Jintao (胡锦涛).

And what of Bo? After all, at age 64, if Bo serves a light prison sentence, there may yet be time for a comeback.  After all, Bo’s father Bo Yibo was a top CCP official when he was purged during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, only to be rehabilitated as an influential Party leaders in the 1980s and 1990s.  The trial has been reminiscent of the 1980 trial of the ‘Gang of Four’ that condemned a handful of top party officials for the Cultural Revolution, including Mao’s widow Jiang Qing.

But while China’s post-Mao leaders took a hard turn away from the failed policies of the Cultural Revolution, Bo’s contemporaries seem to be embracing key elements of the ‘Chongqing model’ — and that is likely to secure Bo’s legacy regardless of the sentence that’s soon to be delivered against him.

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