With disgraced politician Bo Xilai expelled from the party, his career effectively ended with a slew of criminal charges that are certain to result in convictions, China’s ruling communists can finally focus on the crucial task of ensuring a smooth transition to a new generation of leaders.
On Friday, the party’s decision-making Politburo finally took long-awaited action on the scandal that had loomed over Chinese politics for more than half a year, leveling criminal charges against Bo that range from corruption to sexual affairs to abetting the cover-up of a murder by his wife. At the same time, the 25-member Politburo also made the long overdue announcement of the opening of the party congress, now scheduled for November 8, when President Hu Jintao will step down as party boss and Vice President Xi Jinping will succeed him.
The twin pronouncements are connected: Getting Bo out of the way was seen as crucial to healing rifts in the party and allowing Xi and a new leadership to come to power without the overhang of a messy scandal.
“Having settled this contentious issue, the party leadership is in a position to start the party congress with a facade of unity and also harmony,” said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Friday’s announcement also came on the eve of National Day, which commemorates Mao Zedong’s Oct. 1, 1949, declaration of victory in the country’s civil war and the dawn of the People’s Republic of China. Despite China’s explosive economic growth and breakneck modernization since then, the events surrounding Bo’s fall from grace show Mao’s party remains very much the opaque and powerful force in Chinese political life.
“Again, this is politics overriding legal and judicial principles,” Lam said, noting that the decision came from the Politburo convening behind closed doors instead of judges in an open court.
“The elite politics are still done” in secrecy, Lam said.
One of China’s most ambitious and best-known politicians, Bo was brought down after a trusted aide disclosed that Bo’s wife had murdered a British businessman. Bo was dismissed as party chief of the vibrant inland megacity of Chongqing; his wife, Gu Kailai, was given a suspended death sentence after confessing to the murder; and the aide, Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, received a 15-year prison term for initially covering up the murder and other misdeeds.
The charges against Bo, however, go much further, spanning more than a decade and including allegations that he took bribes, abused his power and had improper relationships with several women. Given the party’s control of the courts, the indictment ensures the flamboyant 63-year-old’s political career is finished.
The criminal proceedings against Bo are likely to start soon, with steps being taken to remove him from the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature. Delegates to that body have immunity from arrest and prosecution.
As the son of a founding father of communist China, Bo grew up with a broad web of contacts within the party, government and military. Unlike most of the other members of the stiff and remote senior leadership, the telegenic Bo also was popular with the public, using a crackdown on organised crime in Chongqing to court publicity.
That also made him a polarizing figure among the party elite. In recent months, as speculation swirled about Bo’s fate and the debate among top leaders dragged on, it is likely that his allies argued for the administrative equivalent of a slap on the wrist, while the top leadership represented by Hu, Vice President Xi and Premier Wen Jiabao saw Bo as a threat that needed to be eliminated.
The decision to level such a harsh punishment is a sign that the top leaders won out, once again, said Jeremy Paltiel, an expert on Chinese politics at Canada’s Carleton University.
“My guess is that Hu and Wen wanted to crush Bo, not just smother him,” Paltiel said. “They got their wish, even at the cost of a month’s delay in the congress.”
The state-run Global Times said in an editorial Saturday that it is in the people’s fundamental interest for the party congress to convene smoothly and that the decisions about Bo provide certainty.
“It is conducive to the current situation and also to the accumulation of political certainty,” the editorial read.
Bo is the first Politburo member to be purged and handed over to prosecutors since Hu ousted Shanghai party secretary Chen Liangyu in 2006 for corruption. Bo’s case, however, was more politically divisive and delicate than Chen’s, or any other recent case in which senior officials have been charged with corruption.
Ultimately, the decision on Bo was part of the overall horse-trading relating to the succession, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in Britain.
“It probably means that as a result they negotiated something else that is better for the leadership succession,” Tsang said.
Bo’s removal is seen as strengthening Xi’s position, leaving him the undisputed leader of the party’s “princelings,” as the offspring of high-ranking communist elders are known, and eliminating a challenger who had threatened party unity. He may face some opposition from Bo’s supporters among party hard-liners, but Friday’s announcement shows his influence was waning fast.
Friday’s closed-door Politburo meeting also likely finalised other arrangements for the congress, including the much-contested lineup for the new leadership as well as for a commission that oversees the party’s control of the military. Those decisions will be presented to the 204-member Central Committee — a cross-section of the nation’s political elite ¬– on November 1 before being discussed a week later at the congress, which is a largely ceremonial event, approving decisions made earlier by the party’s inner circle.
In trying to use the Bo case to rally the rank-and-file, the Politburo said on Friday that bringing down such a high-level leader was proof of the party’s determination to tackle the corruption that has damaged public confidence.
“Investigations must be thorough, firm and make no appeasement, no matter who is involved and how powerful they are, so no corrupt member will escape the punishment of party discipline and the nation’s law,” it said.