The messiest leadership change in China in a generation looks like it’s come to an end, most likely with an uneasy compromise between reformers and those supporting the status quo in the ruling Communist Party.
Nobody has announced that, of course. But the resolution of the status of Bo Xilai, the once-powerful party boss of Chongqing who was deposed earlier this year, and a definitive date set for the critical Party Congress make it highly likely the competing factions in the party have made a deal.
On Friday the Politburo issued an announcement about Bo’s status on the eve of a week-long national holiday. They said the former rabble-rouser had been expelled from the party, stripped of all posts, and that he would face criminal charges of accepting bribes, abuse of power, and “improper sexual relationships with a number of women,” Xinhua reported.
He will probably be tried and convicted soon, putting an end to a sordid, tabloid-style scandal that was a huge embarrassment to the staid, humorless Chinese leadership. Bo will likely serve a long jail sentence, like his wife Gu Kailai, convicted for the murder of a British businessman, Neil Haywood.
Wang Lijun, who served as police chief in Chongqing during Bo’s anti-crime crusade and literally knows where all the bodies are buried, was sentenced to 15 years in jail, primarily for ratting out his boss to officials of the US Consulate in Chengdu, Sichuan, where he briefly sought asylum before being whisked off to Beijing.
The battle over Bo, which has been raging for months, was not just about Bo’s flamboyant personality; it was really about the future of China.
Bo was a princeling, one of the sons of the revolutionary generation that came to power with Mao Zedong (as is the new leader, Xi Jinping). The princelings form a traditionalist faction within the party, headed by former president Jiang Zemin. Opposed to them are the reformers, led by current Premier Wen Jiabao, a populist politician but a tough customer behind the scenes.
Bo’s downfall is a big defeat for the princelings. Xi is still likely to ascend to the top when the Party Congress meets November 8th. But look for Wang Yang, the party boss of wealthy Guangdong province to be named to the seven-person Standing Committee, which really runs the country. He will be Wen’s stand-in after the premier officially retires, along with President Hu Jintao.
But nobody ever retires in the Chinese Communist Party. These shadowy elders will be pulling all the strings they can, which means that more internal battles lay ahead. But at least the worst was avoided, and the demagogic, nationalistic Bo has been sidelined for good. That’s progress and good news for the US.