European Council on Foreign Relations

The fall of a princeling; the fall of the Chongqing model?

It could have been so easy: Bo Xilai, Chongqing Communist Party Chief quickly poised himself as a serious contender for a much-coveted position in the upcoming 18th National Congress of the Communist Party. Despite initial opposition from the Chinese establishment, Bo used state subsidies to encourage investments from companies such as Apple and BASF, he launched social housing programs, extensively cracked down on organized crime in the city while singing the praises of Communism. In our November 2011 publication, China Analysis: One or two Chinese models?, we juxtaposed the recently emerged competing development models; the Chonqing model, irrevocably connected to Bo Xilai, and the Guangdong model, headed by Guangdong province party chief Wang Yang, who stressed a more liberal, rule of law approach. As expected, the two competing models increasingly entered the Chinese public discourse and particularly Bo Xilai, a reformist who stayed true to Maoist ideals, seemed like a sure-fire candidate for the Politburo Standing Committee. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

 Apparently, quite a lot. At the beginning of February, stories surrounding Chongqing vice-mayor and former police chief Wang Lijun started to surface. Wang, who between 2008 and 2010 was in charge of containing the criminal elements of Chongqing, and generally known as a close ally to Bo, suddenly appeared more than 200 miles away from Chongqing, at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, allegedly wanting to defect. Other claimed that he was, in fact, seeking protection from Bo Xilai, as Wang, in order to avoid persecution for his own corruption scandals in the so-called Tieling corruption case, could have implicated Bo. Shortly after, an unverified "open letter to the whole world” from Wang Lijun surfaced, opening with “If everyone sees this letter, I’ll be either dead or have lost my freedom,” before calling Bo Xilai “corrupt to the core”. In the flurry surrounding the mystery of Wang Lijun, China’s most popular microblogging site, Sina Weibo, immediately blocked any search terms related to the incident, while Chongqing authorities announced that Wang is on “stress leave” due to the intense demands of his position.

The director of Research at Brookings, Cheng Li, recently called Bo Xilai’s Chongqing model an “aggressive self-promotion campaign”, which was certainly not welcomed by all party officials, leaving some analysts to wonder whether Bo Xilai’s opponents within the central government are using Wang Lijun to derail his ascent. Amidst the buzz surrounding the recent EU-China summit and Mrs Merkel’s achieved progress in possibly convincing China to help Europe through the euro crisis, it is easy to lose track of stories such as these – after all, complex, corruption allegations are certainly not just a Chinese problem. The developments surrounding the two competing models for China are much more telling than one might at first assume: As the Chinese political apparatus, despite our best efforts of understanding it, continues to be clouded in mystery, the Wang Lijun incident offers unique insights into Beijing’s power struggles. China is regarded as a rigid, inflexible authoritarian regime that is unwilling (or unable?) to adapt to international realities. Arguably, ever since Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms of the 1970s, China appears to have roughly followed the same course. The uncertainty and mystery surrounding the Bo-Wang row, points towards the fact that for the first time in decades we might be observing a fight for the very future of China’s economic, social and political development. As Wang Kang, a Chongqing writer was quoted in the New York Times today “What’s going on in Chongqing is a battle over the course of China. It is about how China should be run.” And this most certainly deserves European attention.

 

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