Bo Xilai taking risks with populist style

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 November, 2010, 12:00am

Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai has an appetite for the limelight. Not for him the bland, cautious uniformity of most senior Chinese leaders. Handsome, flamboyant and publicity savvy, Bo is perhaps the closest equivalent on the mainland of Taiwan's Ma Ying-jeou, at least in style if not substance. In a system where publicity-seeking evokes the disastrous consequences of earlier personality cults, there is an element of daring in his desire to be different.

Further evidence of this comes with his latest high-profile political campaign, advocating that 750,000 Chongqing students spend at least four months of their four-year studies with workers, farmers and soldiers for 'social experience'.

Not surprisingly, the initial reaction included cynicism and suspicion of the similarity to re-education campaigns during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. But, like his crackdown on local triads and their official friends and the holding of mass festivals of revolutionary songs, Bo's latest initiative has attracted national attention, including a lot of feedback criticising the university system, and supporting his attempt to broaden students' experience. He has thus succeeded in setting himself apart yet again with his use of the populist card.

Personality politics has long been out of fashion. After the Cultural Revolution, a new convention of uniformity manifested itself in a grey, uninspiring political style with infighting confined behind closed doors.

Bo, the well-connected son of a late party elder, former mayor of Dalian and governor of Liaoning , is cut from a different cloth. Admittedly, at 61, time is not on his side. This is his last chance for elevation to the Politburo Standing Committee that runs China, and he has had to make up for time lost away from the political scene during a successful period as minister of commerce. He therefore has nothing to lose. But his approach raises questions. Is he seeking a popular mandate, and will this prove to be the forerunner of more political openness?

His populism is not entirely unprecedented. Premier Wen Jiabao is known for his easy-going, unpretentious manner in dealing with ordinary people during periods of adversity such as disasters and uncommon hardship.

And in the run-up to the recent party plenum he repeatedly called for political reform to protect the gains of economic development. With only two years in office left he, too, had nothing to lose. But although plain speaking, Wen remains moderate in the traditional bureaucrat mould compared with Bo.

Thanks to the internet, China's politicians are now more exposed to popular opinion, and able to engage with it. By evoking the image of the Mao era with high-profile initiatives, Bo taps into resentment of modern China's growing wealth gap, and nostalgia for Mao.

That said, populist politics still go against the grain of contemporary Communist Party practice, even if popular opinion is now more relevant to decision-making. It remains the political manoeuvring at the top level that is already under way, not popular support, that will determine the outcome.

Bo's high-stakes political gamble risks creating division and making enemies. But it also highlights the need for mainland politicians to communicate more openly with the public and win consent and support for their policies. We hope that this is a sign that politics is changing for the better on the mainland.