What does the Bo Xilai scandal tell us about China’s political system?

10. May 2012

A little more than a year ago, I offered an analysis on this blog of the likelihood that the color revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa would trigger a similar movement in China (http://infocus.asiaportal.info/2011/03/02/blogsin-focus2011marchare-flower-revolutions-middle-east-and-north-africa-endangering-stability/).

One year later, the Chinese one-party regime is once more facing challenges, and once again it is a matter of debate how severe these challenges are. This time, regime stability is endangered not by social unrest among the alienated mass public, but by divisions within the ruling elites themselves. As a large body of scholarship on regime change dynamics shows, regime disintegration far more often results from splits among the ruling elite than from popular protests. A united leadership can weather even severe public opposition, but elite splits can cause the collapse of a regime even in the absence of popular challenges to its leadership.

Once more, I think that this crisis will pass and leave the one-party regime intact–in all likelihood, it has already passed. Nevertheless, this is a good time to take stock of what we know about the “Bo Xilai scandal” and examine its significance. I will sum up the various interpretations of the fall of Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai who, before his dismissal, had been slated for a seat on China’s topmost political decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). These accounts, which mostly focus on the actors involved and their individual interests and provide explanations specifically pertaining to the leadership change scheduled for this fall, are widely compatible. Based on these accounts, I draw on established theories of autocratic regime maintenance to more generally highlight what this event tells us about the state of China’s political system.


I will start with the facts as they are known to the public. The affair started with a fall-out between Bo Xilai and Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, who had fled the city dressed as a woman and sought refuge in the Chengdu consulate of the United States. After leaving the embassy, Wang was escorted to Beijing by agents of the Ministry of Public Security. He has not been heard of since then. In March, Bo Xilai was first removed from his posts in Chongqing, and one month later dismissed from the Politburo on account of “serious discipline violations”. The Bo family is being investigated for corruption, and Bo Xilai’s wife, Gu Kailai, is facing charges of manslaughter. Allegedly, Wang Lijun carried information that Gu Kailai killed Neil Heywood, a British businessman with close connections to the Bo family.

Given the proximity of this event to the leadership transition planned for late 2012 and the scarcity of reliable information about what triggered these events and how they unfolded, speculation about what really happened and what it all means is rife. The fact that the breaches of discipline Bo allegedly engaged in have not been detailed by the government, and that unverified details are added to the story on a daily basis, allows for a range of possible explanations.



The most commonly accepted explanation, both within China and abroad, is that of a power struggle between different factions within the CCP, notably between the “Princelings”, i.e. descendants of famed revolutionaries, and politicians formerly associated with the CCP’s Youth League. According to rumor, a clique of politicians around former President Jiang Zemin have allied with the princelings. The deeper meaning of this explanation is that the procedures of leadership transition in China are less institutionalized than we believed.

Another explanation focuses more on individuals than on groups and claims that Bo Xilai teamed up with the CCP’s topmost security official Zhou Yongkang, to not only elate Bo into the PBSC, but to install him as Zhou’s successor as head of the Central Political and Legislative Committee. As China’s security apparatus has grown increasingly powerful in the last years, this explanation suggests that CCP hardliners attempted a soft coup against moderate forces within the Party. Rumors of an actual coup attempt in March, and further rumors that Bo eavesdropped on President Hu Jintao continue to keep this hypothesis alive.

A third explanation is centered on the challenge that Bo Xilai’s popularity posed for the institution of collective leadership. In contrast to the members of China’s top decision-making body, Bo Xilai has great charisma, and has gained fame not only for his hard stance against organized crime, but also for reviving Maoist traditions and for implementing pro-poor policies. This has made him popular to the extent that charges of populism and egotism were leveled against him. Shortly before Bo was sacked, Premier Wen Jiabao delivered an unusually emotional speech, warning against leftist tendencies in the Party. Though not mentioning him by name, it is clear that this speech, which also pointed out that such policies marked the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, was directed against Bo Xilai.

A fourth explanation, the one least popular with observers, is the official one: Bo Xilai is guilty of breaching the law, not more and not less. All candidates for a seat on the PBSC are subject to thorough background checks, and it is claimed that in this process evidence of corruption surfaced. This explanation, though hardly credible – Bo had been in the Politburo for some time and would have undergone a background check before being admitted to this elite organization – is favored by the officials as it makes the Party look strong instead of weak: the rule of law is upheld, and dirty elements are filtered out. By extension, it suggests that corruption is not systemic, but confined to individuals, upholding the image that the CCP’s leadership stratum is generally free of corruption and that people like Bo are an exception rather than the rule.


Different as these explanations are, they have one thing in common: with the exception of the official position, all other accounts interpret this episode as a power struggle in the run-up to the 18th Party Congress. Observers have long been divided over the question if China’s leadership transition is formalized and institutionalized, according to political scientists an important precondition for regime stability, and this episode seems to confirm the position of the skeptics.

While not directly challenging this position, I would like to argue for a more refined stance. If we understand institutionalization as establishing formal or informal rules to regulate a process or an outcome that are widely known and commonly followed, we will find that the process of selecting the new leaders is not institutionalized, but leadership change itself is: although both the previous transition from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao and the present transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping have been mired in factionalist struggles, Jiang eventually yielded the reins of power to Hu, and Hu, after the specified ten years, will yield them to Xi. This process might have been disorderly, but the transition itself has never been in question. In a related manner, one might argue that by removing Bo, the collective leadership eliminated a threat to its existence and thus proved that it is functioning better than might be assumed.

While it is tempting to relate the Bo Xilai scandal merely to the issue of leadership succession, I see additional significance elsewhere. In my opinion, this episode highlights a fundamental problem in the Chinese political system: it is in need of reforms too far-reaching to be tackled within the present leadership setup. This results from a fundamental paradox in the consolidation of authoritarian regimes: in order for an autocracy to survive, leadership change needs to be institutionalized. On the other hand, however, the more the mechanisms for picking successors from one’s own ranks become institutionalized, the less likely it is for persons with very different policy outlooks to enter the leadership stratum. In China, not the incoming, but the outgoing leaders decide on policy directions, and these directions are always the result of a compromise. In my opinion, Bo Xilai’s character and policies appealed to those who would like to see a more decisive approach not only to the fundamental problems China is currently facing, but also to how China is governed. Hence, Bo’s rise challenged not only the current leadership’s incremental approach to solving China’s problems, but also the institution of collective leadership itself. Therefore, the episode signifies more than simply a recurring struggle for leadership – it is the result of an inflexible struggling to muster enough strength to cope with major problems without changing the status quo.

This requires some explanation. While Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and to a lesser degree Jiang Zemin, wielded considerable power in deciding the direction of Chinese politics, their successors are far weaker in this regard. Hu Jintao needs to subject himself to the decisions collectively made by the nine-member PSBC, and this will most likely not be different for Xi Jinping. More importantly, the outgoing leadership has already decided the main policies for the coming years. Arguably, this causes policies to be far more cautious and less far-reaching than before. This situation is rendered even more difficult by the fact that governing China has become increasingly complex.

As a result, it has become very challenging to make fundamental changes both within and to the established decision-making routines. Most observers agree that endemic corruption and the influence of special interests on policy-making hinders the solution of problems like income inequality, environmental pollution and the protection of intellectual property rights, all of which need to be addressed for China’s economic growth to continue. Whereas the current leadership has, so far without much success, attempted to reform this increasingly sclerotic system from within, Bo Xilai promised radical alternatives to these piecemeal reforms and thereby challenged the existing system.

Bo’s charisma and the policies he implemented in Chongqing appealed to a Chinese public that has become increasingly cynical about politics; his style promised a change from the dry technocratic reign of the “nine engineers”, as the PBSC was often dubbed, to a more hands-on and deceivingly simple approach to solving the nation’s severe problems. By their nature, Bo’s charisma and his populist approach to politics stood in direct contradiction to the prevailing impersonal model of collective leadership, and his ouster might very well stem from the realization among the technocrats in the PBSC that the carefully balanced system of collective leadership is likely to be rocked if Bo should ascent into the Party’s highest decision making body. If the stories about Bo’s egocentrism, cruelty, lack of compassion and dictatorial work-style that have recently been lanced in the press are true, this concern was well-founded. However, while this provides additional justification for his removal, one of course wonders why such a dangerous man has been able to make it even this far.

Though certainly not an indicator of the imminent collapse of one-party rule in China, this episode nevertheless marks a crucial moment in Chinese politics. For the first time, the major reforms that are undoubtedly necessary will not be pushed through by a small number of strong individuals, but need to be engendered by collective fiat. On the one hand, the moment seems fortuitous: the current shake-up presents a unique chance to implement reforms that make the system more responsive to public demands. This will be more difficult as politics turn back to normal. On the other hand, however, it is unclear who exactly should seize this opportunity, as the Bo episode conveyed a very clear signal that too much personal initiative can be dangerous. In the absence of reform, power can always be maintained by repression and the control of public opinion. Either option, within-system reform and repression, has proponents in the current leadership, and it is utterly uncertain onto which path the new leadership will embark.

Christian Göbel
Senior Lecturer
Department of Political Science, Lund University