Bo's appeal and his fall both reflect Mao's legacy
How extraordinary the past 10 days have been in Chinese politics. On March 9, Bo Xilai, then the high-profile controversial Chonqqing party secretary, met the overseas press, directly addressing arguably the country's biggest political scandal, involving the defection of his right-hand man. Sounding confident and even defiant, he gave the distinct impression that he still had the support of the mainland leadership, despite intense rumours to the contrary.
Then, at the end of the NPC on Wednesday, Premier Wen Jiabao, in what was probably his last major news conference broadcast live on national television, issued an unusual public rebuke to Bo and gave a stern warning that without political reforms, China risked returning to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. That prompted many analysts to conclude Bo's days were numbered. One day later, Xinhua announced the removal of Bo as Chongqing's party chief and his replacement by Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang. The Xinhua report seemed to suggest that Bo still remained a politburo member. Later in the day, Chongqing TV quoted Li Yuanchao, the head of the Communist Party's powerful organisation department, as telling local officials that Bo was sacked because of the negative political implications from the case involving Wang Lijun, a city vice-mayor and former police chief, who spent more than 10 hours in the US consulate in Chengdu, Sichuan province in February.
What is happening to Bo? More importantly, what are the odds that China will plunge into a new Cultural Revolution if political reforms are not implemented?
The replies to those two questions are somewhat interlinked, underlying the tremendous challenges facing the party over its legitimacy.
Let's start with the possible return of the Cultural Revolution, which was launched by Mao Zedong and unleashed 10 years of terror and horror on the Chinese people, history, culture and government from 1966 to 1976. The period, which saw tens of millions of officials and intellectuals purged, many of whom died, has left indelible scars on the collective conscience of those people who went through it.
But much like the government's bloody crackdown on student demonstrations on June 1989, the mainland leadership has swept the atrocities of that period under the carpet and focused mainlanders' attention on the achievements the party has made over the past 30 years.
While the leadership may be happy to see that most of today's younger generations have little knowledge of that period, just like their scant knowledge of the June 4 incident, this gave Bo and the country's leftists a great opportunity to assert their political agenda.
Since Bo launched his twin campaigns of 'sing red and striking black', organising singing contests of Mao-era songs and cracking down on organised criminals and their protectors in government and law enforcement in 2007, he has drawn nationwide attention and praise from mainlanders who have shown growing anger over widening income gaps and rampant official corruption.
Their ignorance of the atrocities committed by Mao prompted them to long for the Mao-era days, when everyone was poor but equal and there was little crime and corruption. The sentiment was greatly fanned by the 'red culture' propaganda organised by Bo's aides and was instrumental in helping revive the leftist movement on the mainland.
Here arises an important question: since Bo started the campaign nearly five years ago, why did Wen sound the warning only now?
That touches on one of the most acute challenges the party is facing over its legitimacy. The mainland may have practiced state capitalism, with officials colluding with businessmen to make enormous profits at the expense of ordinary people, but it still upholds so-called Mao Zedong thought as one of its guiding principles to justify one-party rule.
So that forms the biggest argument in favour of Bo and the leftist movement: if Mao's thoughts are still one of the party's guiding principles, what is wrong with campaigns to praise Mao with red songs and other forms of culture? That partly explains why Wen may have issued the boldest calls for political reform but gave little indication how to implement it.
That also explains why the mainland leaders will have a tough time in deciding Bo's future - because of what Bo represents and why he could be so brazen in promoting red culture in Chongqing.
Lastly, China's chances of returning to another cultural revolution are very slim, largely because China's reform path has been irreversible and even the new leftists have to acknowledge China's great achievements over 30 years. As for Bo, who behaved like a smart Western politician, he merely took advantage of the popular discontent to pursue his own political agenda.