Bo Xilai and the politics of Chinese succession
Bo Xilai at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing this month before his sacking as Communist Party secretary of Chongqing.
March 28th, 2012
11:38 AM ET

Bo Xilai and the politics of Chinese succession

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a three-part series on Chinese succession. The first article is available here. Neil K. Shenai is a Ph.D. Candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a Visiting Scholar at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) in Nanjing, China. Bernard Geoxavier is a M.A. Candidate in International Studies at HNC.

By Neil K. Shenai and Bernard Geoxavier - Special to CNN

On March 15, the Chinese Communist Party announced the removal of Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai, a popular ‘Princeling’ leader, famous for his anti-corruption efforts and dogged support of Maoism. Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Bo is only the third Party Chief to be fired mid-term, and his dismissal serves as one of the highlights of an eventful month for the Chinese Communist Party.

Since Bo’s removal, Chinese social media exploded in speculation about the mysterious death of a young Ferrari driver in Beijing, rumored to be Bo Xilai’s son, and even claimed that Bo sympathizers in the Politburo unsuccessfully tried to stage a coup in retaliation to Bo’s removal.

In our last article, we outlined the importance of China’s leadership succession, arguing that underneath the stable veneer of China’s one-Party rule lies a competitive political struggle to control the heart of the Chinese state. In this article, we explain why the Chinese Communist Party removed Bo Xilai and discuss what these events might tell us about the incoming Party Chairman Xi Jinping.

Why the Communist Party fired Bo Xilai

The Communist Party chose to remove Bo Xilai as Chongqing Party chief to sideline a national distraction and expunge one of the Party’s biggest political liabilities. Prior to Bo’s firing, his police chief and confidant, Wang Lijun, unsuccessfully tried to escape to the United States consulate in Chengdu, fleeing charges relating to corruption and harvesting human organs, among other counts.

Only after the United States denied Wang Lijun asylum did it became clear that Bo’s anticorruption campaigns in Chongqing often relied on a host of grisly authoritarian tactics led by Wang Lijun, including torturing political rivals, appropriating private property in the name of the state, and censuring fellow Party officials for their ostensible lack of ideological rectitude.

The day before Bo Xilai’s dismissal, Wen Jiabao subtly condemned Bo’s heavy-handed approach, claiming that these types of coercive tactics could lead China down a dangerous road of paranoia and political upheaval, much like that of the Cultural Revolution. China’s leaders’ willingness to sack such a prominent member of their own ranks shows their implicit fear of Maoist-style ideological campaigns.

From this perspective, Bo’s firing can be seen as Chinese leadership’s repudiation of Bo’s unique brand of 'Chongqing School' revivalism. In all likelihood, key players such as Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping recognize that charismatic leaders like Bo can capitalize on the legitimate desires of the Chinese people - like the goal of anti-corruption - to sow paranoia, encourage politically motivated purges, and aggrandize themselves to feed their own cult of personality and expand their power.

The message is clear: Ideological battles might have turned the Communist Party into the omnipresent force that it is in China today, but these types of old-school conflicts could derail the awesome progress of the Chinese economy over the past thirty years and sink Chinese international aspirations. By overstepping his ideological bounds, Bo set the stage for his own dismissal.

Xi Jinping: Laying low to rise above

In all of the confusion that took place over the last month, many China observers have wondered where Xi Jinping went. The de facto incoming General Secretary of the Communist Party has had a quiet month after returning from his trip to America, which many in China saw as the international legitimization of China’s sixth generation of Party leaders. Even the Global Times, one of China's more hawkish and nationalist news outlets, openly called for clarity in the face of allegations of party infighting, denigrating the tepid response from the Party about China’s coup rumors.

Despite this criticism, staying quiet may constitute a coherent strategy on behalf of Xi Jinping. In facing these rumors, Chinese leadership encountered the timeless paradox of the strong: To acknowledge rumors is to give them (and their proponents) political credibility; to ignore the rumors creates the space necessary for these rumors to grow and take on a life of their own.

By sacking Bo Xilai and staying reticent about coup rumors, Xi Jinping and his fellow leaders have attempted to triage between both of these competing goals. On one hand, sacking Bo is an implicit acknowledgment of the corrosive effect of Bo’s policies on the Chinese body politic. On the other hand, by ignoring the associated coup rumors that went along with Bo’s firing, Party bosses have been able to give Chinese citizens the impression of normalcy, delegitimizing the coup rumors by not responding to them.

Today, there are no tanks on the streets and no restrictions on how average Chinese citizens can go about their lives. Projecting this image of stability and continuity in the face of challenges to their own power is a coherent strategy employed by Xi Jinping to create distance from himself and the fallout associated with Bo Xilai’s firing.

As the last month has shown, China is far from a unified monolith, seamlessly handing power from one generation to the next. Unlike elections in the West, where every gaffe and conflict among candidates dominates the news cycle, China’s succession is just as fiercely contested but takes place outside the view of the public eye.

The eruption of the Bo Xilai scandal serves as a stark reminder that just as Western leaders fear China’s political regression to Maoism, Party elites also feel threatened by the stark historical memory of the Cultural Revolution.

Further, while many in the West are content to let their imaginations run wild about purported coups and high drama in Beijing, the Party likely realizes that a show of normalcy and strength will give it the space it needs to usher in the 6th generation cadres and help China navigate this tumultuous period of domestic politics.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Neil K. Shenai and Bernard Geoxavier.

soundoff (51 Responses)
  1. George Patton

    If Bo Xilai is both anti-corruption and doggedly pro-Maoist, then he's the man China needs at the helm!

    March 28, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Reply
    • patrick

      Abdul, can you please state "why"?

      March 28, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Reply
      • Lionel Mandrake

        So you cannot say Why?
        As per usual, on every discussion, you are spouting the islamic agenda of spewing lies in hope of creating dissent in America.

        March 29, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • DL

      Sounds nice buy very deceiving, because he is corrupted himself... big time

      March 28, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Reply
  2. friendsofindia

    How wonderful that these American pundits know just about everything and everywhere, including the secretive world of the Chinese state, unlike that of the most open, most transparent, and supah dupah Indian superpower. Even our Italian lady has more transparency with her Saree than all of that China added together, and of course, her son Rahul.

    Better yet, we resolutely recommend that America should invade China, the only large country that can ever rival India. As the world's greatest democracy and its only super duper power, India should join the US in this invasion, for this is the only chance that the invasion can ever succeed.

    On the one hand, the US has plenty of experience of invading other countries, with the skills honed in the invasion of Panama, Greennada, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, that India lacks. On the other, India has resources and ways and means to manage large dalit populations. We can send 100 million of our dalit armies, that completely overwhelm all the population in China. We can make all the Chinese girls to be married to our dalit soldiers, that will instantly solve our problem of too few girls, and at the same time all the next generation of them will be our content India dalits instead of Chinese who are constantly a pain on India's butt. As for the rest of the Chinese men, they will either all be vaporized in their unholy and futile so called resistance, or that they can all migrate to Russia to co-habit with their fellow Ruskies.

    This will completely change the geostrategic situation in Asia, it will make India the strongest nation in the world, and enhancing our world's greatest and largest and duperest super power status. And in fact, that should turn it around immediately to make the USA our vassal state because of our immediate control of Iranian oil and gas and our chokehold on the Eurasia land mass.

    Submit to your fate under our Hindu Colossus, beg our 5 rupee meal middle classes, bow to our super powers.

    Pray for India. Jai Hind!

    March 28, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Reply
    • roshi

      I am wondering when you Indians can repair the hurt feeling recceived from 1962 war, a war won by commie China against DemonCrazy India when China was at its weakest and poorest.
      India is a proven failour of DemonCrazy.

      March 28, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Reply
      • Chesterwang

        I quite agree with you. A failure and a dream on the way!

        March 30, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
      • DemocarzyMan

        Both China and India are examples of wrong political ideology.

        China should opt for capitalism, which Chinese eventually did under the disguise of market-oriented modernization, thus showing the largest scale of human modernization in world history.

        India like to send their best to Cambridge and Oxford to learn the theory of the Wealth of Nations and modern capitalism. But India 's culture and value is not suitable for capitalism, and best suit for socialism which can help to equalize the polarity of wealth in India. So India should go socialism.

        April 2, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
      • Zilch

        Communists invaded India and didn't leave with any territory.
        Communism is stupid.
        Democracy rules, get over it. One day your communism will be conquered by Democratic principles. Either from within or from without.

        April 4, 2012 at 5:05 am |
    • CK

      India boy, wake up the earlier the better. Read something about China history. This nation never afraid of war from very ancient time. If India fight with China, I am afraid that you will not only lack of girls, even hens in your country will disappeared

      March 29, 2012 at 4:28 am | Reply
      • Lu

        wonderful, quite agree with you!

        April 1, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Jiahao

      Son, you are cute.

      March 30, 2012 at 2:04 am | Reply
    • alittle

      this may be one of attempt for US since 2000. it may success if US and India work together well. if chinese woman would love to marry with your country men and chinese men would loved to be resistant, in that case, it will come to be true.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Reply
    • Zilch

      1) This guy is a fake, trying to make Indians (and probably Americans) look bad.
      2) China doesn't have any women.
      3) China is invading and moving borders, while trying to paint others as such.
      4) China is an unholy communist state. They should be banned from trading with the free world.
      5) Anyone who calls Democracy crazy is a commie and deserves to be poor and not trade with the free world.

      April 4, 2012 at 5:04 am | Reply
  3. Marine5484

    What has this senseless comment of yours above to do with Bo Xilai or China, Urgent?

    March 28, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Reply
    • patrick

      and of course Marine, if there is one thing you know, that is what you spout consistently "senseless" gibberish, don't you?

      March 30, 2012 at 9:10 am | Reply
  4. roshi

    Our "friendsofindia" dreamed pretty well. But the first thing first, try hard to install enough toilets for your citizens half of whom have no toilet paper to wipe their broken ash. lol!

    March 28, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Reply
    • habibi


      March 30, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    Wen Jiabao doesn't let an opportnist and populist like Bo Xilai to turn China's clock back.

    March 29, 2012 at 5:23 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      In his eyes Bo Xilai was preaching water and drinking wine.

      March 29, 2012 at 5:24 am | Reply
      • Marine5484

        Sorry j.von hettlingen, the comment below wasn't aimed at you but instead at Urgent who evidently had his comment deleted from this web page!

        March 29, 2012 at 11:25 am |
      • Lionel Mandrake

        Your statement does not make sense.
        But this is what I tell you in all discussion, you cannot use the arabic translator.

        March 29, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  6. justice2012

    friendsofindia, india does not have the ability. dare u have the courage to invade china, there will be NO DELI in india in a minute. china loves peace but never fears war. history will tell you!

    March 30, 2012 at 4:52 am | Reply
    • alittle

      India will have the ability if US would provide all they wanted. it will come if India and US work out together. the most important is that US or India should take advantage about chinese culuter some weak. from histroy, china fell a number of time by herself more than any county in the world. However, chinese never afraid of felling and getting better again and again. It make more attract for invander, isn't good feeling for invading? isn't it as same feeling as when men kills woman and children which make man feel of being a man.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Reply
  7. John

    I am so sorry that you are not something of India . Otherwide , many will say how stupid and superficial the Indian are
    But we can forgive you because you are just a ignorant coward

    March 30, 2012 at 9:16 am | Reply
  8. osita


    March 30, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  9. Chesterwang

    friendofindia: you are wandering in your daydream ! Invade? is it possible ?

    March 31, 2012 at 2:14 am | Reply
  10. justin

    look forward to know more from this post.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:02 am | Reply
  11. amor


    April 1, 2012 at 3:15 am | Reply

  12. 中国需要战争去争服你

    April 1, 2012 at 8:53 pm | Reply
  13. Ai---

    I hope Neil K. Shenai and Bernard Geoxavier only conduct their study with the sponsorship instead of wasting the money regardless of the origin-whether the Chinese people or the American people.

    The so-called research results seems to me a heap of meanless or even gymcrack words. In today's China, a coup intended for what? Nonsenses!

    April 2, 2012 at 8:19 am | Reply
  14. whybother

    I am Indian and I am almost certain that the person posted with name friendsofindia here is a troll. The poster can not be Indian for the following reasons –
    He talks about invading the Chinese. Forget what the Indian government thinks but I have never seen any Indian in my life who lives under such a delusion to believe China can be invaded and it would be worth it.
    He talks about dalits in India but no Indian Hindu would talk about dalits like that. Only ignorant outsider can speak such lies about dalits in India.
    The last line of his post sums it all. Submit to your fate under our Hindu Colossus…..??? No Hindu will ever talk like that because thats NOT our teaching or philosophy!!!
    Anyway I think everybody know who’s philosophy always talks about submission!!!!

    April 2, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Reply
  15. xue


    April 2, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Reply
  16. Nelson

    An invasion? Maybe the Chinese Gov.want it more than you expected.
    The situation internal Mainland China is similar with German before world war II.:the corruption,inflation, contradiction between rich and poor people and government,weakness of diplomatic.
    A war can get rid of these

    April 3, 2012 at 6:51 am | Reply
  17. hanah

    US is criticising China 4 torturing? Come on! Americans are torturing the whole world ... so dear sirs in CNN you better take care about tortrure in Guantanamo, Aghanistan, Iraq, Libya ... etc. Double standards and hypocrisy of Western media as usually ....

    April 3, 2012 at 8:38 am | Reply
  18. 耀哥

    看不懂english,有知道真相的请发我邮箱,thanks very much !

    April 12, 2012 at 2:28 am | Reply
  19. Ivan


    May 3, 2012 at 2:02 am | Reply
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