The “two meetings” in Beijing tend to be fairly uneventful political gatherings. Every once in a while someone makes a definite statement about something that’s been in doubt, and the prime minister is given the opportunity to show his wit at the international press conference. It was during one of these meetings that Zhu Rongji uttered the famous words “不管前面是地雷阵还是万丈深渊,我将一往无前,义无反顾,鞠躬尽瘁,死而后已” (even if there’s a minefield or bottomless abyss in front [of me], I will keep going forward and do my utmost to my last breath). Wu Bangguo took the chance last year to say that China will not become a multi-party democracy of a Western kind . The latter might sound like something Western media would choose to play up, but it made the headlines in Chinese newspapers as well. Finally, this year, Wen Jiabao reiterated, like he’s done on a couple of occasions through the years, that political reform is necessary. I will get into the details of this further down.
All of this was put in the shadow by a much more momentous event, the ouster of upcoming Bo Xilai. That this wasn’t just a temporary shuffle was obvious by what happened around it: while premier Wen Jiabao officially criticized the Chongqing authorities and told them to learn from the Wang Lijun case, Li Yuanchao, the head of the Organization Department, personally made his way to Chongqing to deliver the message and note that the Central Committee had made the decision after long deliberation.  I have to admit that I found Bo’s misfortune surprising even though some sort of reaction was expected.
Apart from the political program instituted by Bo, that has become known as the “Chongqing model,” his marks can be seen on the cities of Dalian and Chongqing, both of which he headed as mayor. Apart from the clean feel of Dalian and its gorgeous beachside road, it grew phenomenally under Bo’s rule and also became an important technological center in the region. In Chongqing, one of his greatest achievements was the major crackdown on the local mafia and its local supporters.
What struck most people, though, was the quirkiness of Bo’s “new left” politics. Apart from welfare programs, he sported an elaborate image of going back to the classics, sending quotes from Mao in SMS messages to city residents and encouraging people to sing political songs. Bo’s politics was summed up as 唱红打黑 (sing red and strike black – sing socialist songs and crack down on crime) and he quickly became the darling of groups like 乌有之乡 (“The Utopian village,” a website for the maoist and new left). He seemed to have the support of several major players, including Zhou Yongkang, and defied the standard procedures of Chinese politics by seemingly trying to get a popular base to nudge his way into the politburo. It was the latter that attracted a lot of attention abroad. In China, the main fascination with Bo was his revival of red imagery and his obviously populist stance.
Last month an unusual event created a lot of stir both globally and locally in China as Wang Lijun, henchman of Bo Xilai and instrumental in the crackdowns, suddenly walked into the US consulate in Chengdu. While it is not known exactly what Wang requested, the incident was an embarrassment for Bo. There was much speculation about the causes but it seems the most obvious reason was that Wang had fallen out of favor with his former master and now sought to find something incriminating to use against him to lighten his own fall.
Then last week, Wen Jiabao, while noting that Chongqing in many ways was successful economically, also said that “the current city secretary and municipal government has to reflect [on what happened], and seriously ponder the lesson of the Wang Lijun case.”  After that he added that the Communist Party had made mistakes in the past, especially during Mao’s era, and that correct decisions had been made during the famous third plenum of the the 11th National Congress in 1978. Wen also noted that without political reform, the Cultural Revolution could happen again. This was a very obvious attack on Bo’s politics of red nostalgia.
This and Li Yuanchao’s visit to Chongqing seem to have pretty much sealed Bo Xilai’s fate. A lot has been said about the reasons for his demise, with some articles more speculative than others. Many agree, though, that Bo’s strong leftist positions and his way of drawing too much attention to himself hit a raw nerve in the polity.
Xia Ming, a political scientist in New York, have offered some of the more interesting analyses I’ve found about the whole thing . His point is that Hu Jintao, who himself is of the center left, used Bo Xilai as a representative of the far left to keep the rightists and the reform faction under control. It’s been obvious for quite some time that reformists have been grappling with conservatives, and with heavyweights such as Zhou Yongkang supporting Bo, it’s been no secret where he stands.
Now that Bo Xilai has been removed, it is believed that the reformists will have a stronger position than before. Since Xi Jinping is more obviously associated with the rich coastal provinces than the hinterland, it would make sense for him to steer more towards the right during his tenure.
This leads us to the question of political reform. One thing that has struck me is that no one I’ve seen so far in the foreign media have commented on Wen Jiabao’s claim that reform now have reached the “storming fortress phase” (攻坚阶段). “Storming the Fortress” is the name of a book about party reform in China that was published in 2006. The main ideas in the book is that political reform is necessary to get rid of structures that impede economic development, and that the Party must become a more constitutional force that is under the law. It paints a picture of a more Singaporean system where a greater role is given to independent organizations, and a more streamlined political system where the Party has relinquished a lot of the direct control it has today. It would take several posts to go through all the contents of this book, but suffice it to say that it contains concrete reform measures that are acceptable to a broad range of those who belong to the “right” in the Chinese political landscape. Whether Xi Jinping is able to institute these reforms is another matter, but it seems the reformists now have wind in their sails, something that hasn’t been true for a long time.