Beijing Tightens Grip After Purge

Bo Xilai attended the opening ceremony of the National People’s Congress on March 5. Analysts say the Maoist revival Mr. Bo led in Chongqing is unlikely to disappear following his ouster. Getty Images | Mar 21, 2012


BEIJING—The central Chinese government hardened its grip in Chongqing, the domain of recently ousted Communist Party secretary Bo Xilai, targeting the “red singing” he had encouraged in the southwestern city, part of an approach that has widened an ideological rift among the party elite.

However, political analysts say the Maoist revival Mr. Bo led in Chongqing is unlikely to disappear following his ouster. That is partly because leaders have to be careful not to be seen as going against historical Communist Party values and also because Mr. Bo’s promotion of a strong state role in the economy found widespread support among those who feared rapid privatization of state wealth.

His firing last week has shaken China’s political establishment, and exposed such high-level divisions just ahead of its once-a-decade leadership transition beginning this fall. The highly unusual purge has raised questions about whether the party can restore the internal political unity needed to preserve its grip on power.

Beijing has released little information on its handling of Chongqing, beyond announcing last week that Zhang Dejiang, a vice premier with strong ties to state industry leaders, had taken over Mr. Bo’s position. The whereabouts of Mr. Bo and his family remained unclear, including whether he is under house arrest or has been taken into police custody.

Political analysts have said that Mr. Bo may be allowed to retain his seat on the country’s Politburo and avoid formal corruption or other charges if he agrees to cooperate with authorities and doesn’t challenge his removal.

Wang Lijun, Mr. Bo’s former police chief, is widely believed to have presented damaging material about Mr. Bo during a visit to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu in February. Mr. Wang is also being investigated by Chinese authorities.

Separately on Tuesday, the state-run Xinhua news agency quoted Li Yuanchao, the head of the party’s organization department, as warning party members against pursuing individuals gains, “and to resist money-worshiping and hedonism.” He reiterated a recent call by Vice President Xi Jinping for party purity, which has been viewed as a clear rejection of Mr. Bo’s individualist and populist leadership style.

Unsubstantiated rumors across the capital and on China’s Internet underscored the widespread speculation fueled by Mr. Bo’s ouster. Some users on Twitter-like services such as Sina Corp.’s SINA -1.20% Weibo claimed a heightened security presence in Beijing and even a possible political coup against the government of President Hu Jintao. The word “coup” was a blocked search term on Weibo as of Tuesday evening.

The growing interest in Mr. Bo’s fate parallels the efforts by central authorities to solidify control over Chongqing. Authorities in recent days posted a notice in People’s Square—where locals, especially senior citizens, often gathered to sing red songs under Mr. Bo—warning against singing or dancing there.

A picture of the notice posted online, and later confirmed by Chongqing residents, cites excessive noise as a reason to limit the singing and dancing. Nonetheless, according to residents, groups of senior citizens continued to gather, despite the warnings from local authorities.

Mr. Zhang, Chongqing’s new party chief, is the son of an army general, and like Mr. Bo is often referred to as a “princeling.” Nonetheless, he is widely viewed as in the role only temporarily to reinforce the central-government’s positions until a longer-term successor is selected, likely in the fall.

Local government-run media have also reflected the central government’s influence. Saturday’s Chongqing Times in a front-page headline pledged to “earnestly implement the central government’s decision.”

The removal of Mr. Bo, who had been running an unusually overt campaign to thrust himself into the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, is being widely viewed as a rejection of individualist politics in favor of consensus-driven decision making.

Mr. Bo was closely backed by a group of academics and lower-level officials, known as China’s “new left,” who supported a Maoist revival and a greater role for the state in economic development. Mr. Bo’s sacking is a blow to the movement, but its relatively close ties to traditional Maoist thought could shield it from wider attack by today’s party’s leaders, according to analysts, although Premier Wen Jiabao last week warned another Cultural Revolution might again occur in China without reform of the country’s political and leadership systems.Unlike liberal political dissidents in China, who are routinely persecuted for their views, those tied to the Maoist revival led by Mr. Bo aren’t likely to face similar government harassment in the near term, said Mao Shoulong, a well-known expert on Chinese politics at Renmin University in Beijing. “The new left is regarded as a matter of political differences” as opposed to a critical threat facing the state, he said. “Bo Xilai and the new left certainly have a relationship, but [the Bo case] is mainly still an individual thing.”

While China’s top officials have embraced economic and more limited political reform, they are cautious against too greatly distancing themselves from former Chairman Mao Zedong, who remains a revered figure in Chinese politics despite the acknowledgment of shortcomings during his time in power.

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