Bo Xilai

Battle of men and ideas for party's future

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 February, 2012, 12:00am


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Policy debates in Western-style democracies are often characterised as pro-business vs pro-people or pro-growth vs pro-equality.

The same debate on the mainland - described as pro-reform vs pro-socialism or 'cake making' vs 'cake sharing' - is closely linked to a power struggle between the two main factions within the Communist Party's leadership and the promotion prospects of two men in this autumn's leadership transition.

The recent downfall of the former right-hand man of maverick Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai has dealt a heavy blow to Bo's hopes and to his 'Chongqing model', which is locked in a battle for supremacy with the economic liberalism of the rival 'Guangdong model'.

The party's top disciplinary body detained former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun , who made his name as a triad-buster in Bo's crusade against organised crime, after he visited the US consulate in Chengdu , Sichuan , last week. While he is not senior enough to have been a player in the upcoming reshuffle, his downfall has raised questions about the viability of the Chongqing model's socialist-leaning economic and social policies.

Mainland politics is largely guided by the norms of conformity and unity, but the unusually open debate between Bo and Guangdong party chief Wang Yang , chief advocate of the Guangdong model, has shone a spotlight on an escalating internal tussle ahead of the party's 18th congress, which will herald the retirement of party general secretary Hu Jintao . Most of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee will be replaced, including Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao , in addition to many of the 25 members of the Politburo.

Bo and Wang Yang, the most prominent candidates for promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee, have been engaged for months in a rare public debate over whose model is best for the country.

For his part, Bo has championed an approach that emphasises efforts to reverse income inequality. 'Some people in China have indeed become rich first, so we must seek the realisation of common prosperity,' Bo was quoted as saying in July. A week later, Wang Yang said 'division of the cake is not a priority right now. The priority is to make the cake bigger.'

Wang Yang appears to be pursuing a future closer to the freewheeling capitalism of Hong Kong, while Bo's vision is closer to the state-controlled capitalism of Singapore. Some have even suggested he would like it to be more like North Korea.

In article in the Washington Quarterly last month, Professor Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution in Washington, said Bo's self-promotion had been the more effective. '[Bo] is an elitist who has always been favoured and privileged within the communist regime, but he now claims the mantle of Maoist populism,' Li wrote.

Indeed, Bo seems to have succeeded in becoming quite popular among the Chongqing public and his bravado earned him the title 'man of the year' in an online poll conducted by the People's Daily in 2009.

Professor Liu Kang, the director of Duke University's China Research Centre, said of the Wang Lijun affair: 'This seemed at first like a power struggle on Bo's turf and then turned into a diplomatic crisis. However, I don't think it will escalate into the much rumoured downfall of Bo and his Chongqing model, as hoped for by many right-wing intellectuals.'

Wu Si , editor-in-chief of the pro-reform journal Yanhuang Chunqiu, said the Chongqing model represents a dissenting voice and that its existence is good for China's political ecology.

Bo has been as active as ever since the Wang Lijun saga broke, making an inspection trip last week to a military unit in Yunnan that was set up by his late father, revolutionary veteran Bo Yibo . State media reports say he has continued his campaign to promote his pet 'core socialist values' in recent days.

Liu said people need to see Chongqing model as a contradictory but viable experiment, jointly executed by an overconfident and capable princeling in Bo and a veteran economist and bureaucrat - Chongqing Mayor Huang Qifan .

'Ideologically the Chongqing model seems quite scary to China's intellectual elite, who are mostly disenfranchised from and traumatised by Maoist ideologies,' Liu said. 'Yet they tend to downplay Huang Qifan's economic achievements in Chongqing, with rapid GDP growth and balanced social reform, including affordable housing, social welfare, medicare, et cetera, with the strong backing of Bo.'

Liu also pointed out that the princelings, headed by Hu's heir-apparent, Vice-President Xi Jinping , will inevitably take over and are desperate to find ways out of the Hu-Wen gridlock. 'Allowing the Chongqing and the Guangdong models to compete is one of the few choices they have,' he said.

However, analysts say there's no guarantee that Bo and his patrons in Zhongnanhai, the party leadership compound in Beijing, can help his campaign regain momentum.