Who’s after Hu? The Bo Xilai Incident and the Future of Political Leadership in China

Who’s after Hu? The Bo Xilai Incident and the Future of Political Leadership in China

With the change of leadership looming, recent events in Beijing evoked a sense of discomposure and polarization within the Chinese inner power circle. What do the incidents tell us about the upcoming personnel and, more importantly, policy decisions? Not much, to be honest. Still, the game of Chinese politics might be about to change.

1. Confusion in Beijing

On March 15th, in a move that caught international attention, the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) ousted Bo Xilai, party chief of Chongqing province and member of the 25 member Politburo. Bo, until then a hopeful candidate for the Standing Committee of the Politburo (PSC) to be elected in October, was sacked shortly after his former ally and chief of Chongqing police, Wang Lijun, had apparently tried to defect to the U.S. and was subsequently arrested. However, the real and full circumstances that led to his removal remain unclear, as does Wang’s fate.

In a further sign of confusion, in later March Chinese ‘weibo’-microblogs, the least censored media in the People’s Republic, echoed with rumors about a failed military coup in Beijing that was said to be led by Zhou Yongkang, PSC member and head of the state military forces – and allegedly a supporter of Bo’s ambitions. There were reports of gunfire and military presence in Zhongnanhai, the district in Beijing that hosts the party’s and government’s headquarters. Speculation was fueled by Zhous absence from the public, although he reappeared on state television later holding official meetings.

It’s quite likely we will never know exactly what happened in Zhongnanhai these last days and weeks, since the official media have remained all but silent on the events and online references to the incidents have been blocked by state censorship. It seems unlikely that a coup has actually been attempted, and the regime as such is stable, as far as one can tell from the outside. Still, the rumors are evidence of growing internal rifts that are dividing the CPC and of the increasing nervousness of the factions with regard to the upcoming reconfiguration of the party’s power structure.

2. The polarization of leadership

The division line within the party leadership is commonly drawn either between liberals and conservatives or ‘elitists’ and ‘populists’. While these classifications overlap to some extent, they are not identical. The elitist/populist distinction refers to the struggle for power between two groups of functionaries with differing personal backgrounds. The ‘elitists’ are mostly family members (or ‘princelings’, as they are commonly called) of veteran revolutionaries and former high-ranking party functionaries. These ‘princelings’ include figures such as the likely next president Xi Jinping, chief legislator Wu Bangguo and, until recently, Bo Xilai. The ‘populist’ coalition, currently led by president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao, is home to officials from less privileged families such as Li Keqiang, the likely new premier, and Wang Yang, party chief of Guangdong province.  See the following Table 1 for a styliyed overview proposed by Li (2012).

Table 1: Factional Identities of the Leading Candidates for the Next Politburo Standing Committee (click to enlarge).

Generally, the ‘elitists’ represent the interests of Chinese enterprises and pursue more liberal economic policies while the ‘populists’ emphasize social justice and advocate a strong role of the state . However, the alignments are not at all consistent: There are ‘elitists’ with a distinctively conservative agenda – Table 2 below, again as proposed  by Li (2012), provides a rough overview. Most prominently, the ‘princeling’ Bo has run a rather assertive self-promotion campaign and reintroduced ‘red’ revolutionary propaganda from the Mao era in his province. His leftist program of common prosperity guaranteed by an interventionist state came to be known as the ‘Chongqingmodel’. This approach is rivaled by Wang Yang’s liberal ‘Guangdongmodel’. While Wang is, by personal background, a ‘populist’, he has repeatedly pushed for far-reaching economic and political reforms. In his remarks at the National People’s Congress, premier and fellow ‘populist’ Wen joined in Wang’s call, once again advocating democratic reforms and warning against backward policies that might end in “such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution”[1], obviously alluding to Bo’s conservative policies.

Table 2: Policy Priorities and Preferences of the Leading PSC Candidates (click to enlarge).

This short insight reveals that things are more complex than they might appear at first glance. Depending on the political role one assigns to Bo, one can draw different conclusions from his dismissal. Take him as a high-profile ‘princeling’, and it represents a victory for the ‘populists’ and a defeat for the ‘elitists’. Take him as a conservative, and it’s a defeat for the populist agenda and a victory for liberal minded grandees. Against this backdrop, it is in fact quite hard to say which faction, if any, has gained ground in the nip-and-tuck for the new PSC.

3. Charisma, not patronage – a new source of legitimization for China’s leaders

Maybe it is most fruitful to not regard the Bo incident primarily as a struggle between players with differing personal backgrounds or political ideologies. These rivalries and differences have been fought before, even in the seemingly monolithic CPC, and they usually ended with some kind of compromise that did not allow for extreme solutions. What’s new is the increasing involvement of the public in questions of leadership. In other words, the question is not so much who wins the game but how the game itself begins to change.

David Pilling (2012) points out that, ever since Mao’s death, it was administrative experience and individual patronage that made party careers, not public support. Bo’s popularity and the media attention for his intensive campaigning pose a challenge to this meritocratic leadership paradigm. The party establishment, both populists and elitists, reacted to this challenge by removing Bo from the list of PSC candidates, but if the Bo experience proves to represent a general trend, they are not likely to stop it in the long term. The young, well-educated middle class are beginning to discover the power of social media and public debate to influence questions of policy and personnel decisions, and they won’t easily give up that power again. In Weberian terms, what we might see in Chinese politics is the growing importance of charismatic leadership alongside long-established bureaucratic and patriarchic structures. That is certainly not to say that we are to expect a shift towards all-out democratic elections or a multi-party system, but that public opinion will be increasingly considered in questions of leadership.

What impact would this trend towards popular legitimization of leadership have on China and the world? With respect to the Chinese citizens, it would be good news, as it would require more accountability and democratic legitimization on the part of the new generation of CPC leaders. For the world, it might mean a China that is more nationalistic, more assertive and less predictable than it already is in the eyes of Western observers. This is the dilemma one has to face when assessing recent developments in Beijing.

Time to set your priorities.

by Kilian Spandler

Kilian Spandler is studying political science, sociology, and economics at Würzburg University.

Source of tables

Table 1: Li, C., 2012, p. 139

Table 2: Li, C., 2012, p. 143.


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[1] Quoted in Garnaut 2012.