Monday, 23 December 2013

Bo's Story, and My Memories of Dalian and Chongqing...

Book Review
John Garnaut, The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo 
ISBN: 9780143569350

When I lived in Beijing in 2005-2009, all I heard about Bo Xilai was good.  At the time, he was everything any Chinese people would possibly asked for in a Minister of Commerce.  He was handsome, well dressed, and appeared very much at ease in engaging officials from any part of the world.  He was the poster boy for a China that was opening up its economy more and more.  His image symbolized a proud, promising, and modern nation, ready to be among the other economic giants of the world.

Indeed, Bo Xilai was at the time China’s fast-rising political star.  I remember visiting Dalian in 2007 and marveled at how awesome the city felt.  Not only was it clean and orderly, Dalian was such a nice break from the grey pavements of Beijing.  The sea, the breeze, the greenery, the food, the sights… The city also felt worldly, seemingly ready to open its doors to international engagement.  I remember eating really good Korean BBQ there, and shopping products that had been destined for other parts of Asia.  And throughout my time there, I couldn’t help but recognize that much of this could be attributed to Dalian’s former Mayor, Bo Xilai.

But in 2013, as I watched the news coming out from China from the comfort of my home in Jakarta, I was astounded by the political drama that was unfurling with Bo Xilai as its central figure.  He was on BBC, CNN, ChannelNews Asia; he was even on Indonesia’s MetroTV and TvOne.  And the drama was beyond my belief.  China’s most popular politician had fallen from grace.  Not only has he lost his position as one of the contenders in China’s future leadership, the political rock star was found guilty of corruption, bribery and abuse of power.  His sentence: life imprisonment. 

Colourful fans in Dalian, 2007 (Private Collection)
How did this all happen?  And how did it all happen so fast?

Indeed, although the news did make the headlines in Indonesia, it never really grabbed the regular political observers’ attention.  Of course, it’s probably different if you were someone who is particularly keen on developments taking place in China.

But in the western media, the Bo Xilai drama was dissected left, right, and center, and used as an examination of the problems that China was facing internally.  Moreover, Bo Xilai was many times portrayed as a someone who was willing to stand up to the heavy-handedness of the Chinese leadership at the time, led by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Everyone knows that the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party is rife with problems.  But the cruelty of Bo’s political assassination demonstrated just how dangerous politics is in this one-party country.  And for the western media and academia, this gave reason to comment on the high likelihood of political implosion in China.  A political implosion that could bring this gigantic economy to its knees, the way the Soviet Union unraveled and disappeared into history.

Hanging out in downtown Dalian, 2007 (Private Collection)
In his book, The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo, John Garnaut gives an excellent account of the Bo Xilai’s political successes, and of course, failures. Garnaut not only revealsthe nastiness that lies behind the rule of Bo Xilai and his family in Chongqing (where Bo was Party chief), but goes back into China’s history to outline the beginnings of Bo’s rivalry with the present Chinese leadership.

Through careful research, Garnaut provides a rich, flowing, and highly engaging narrative of how Bo Xilai came into power, and then lost it. Whatever good image I had previously had of Bo immediately became questionable, as accounts after another are revealed about Bo’s strong-hand rule.  On screen, Bo played the personae of a down-to-earth leader who is willing to stand for the rights of the people and the glory of the Chinese Communist Party.  However, behind the screen, Bo not only bended, but knowingly broke laws and regulations in order to gain financial profits for himself and his close inner circle.  

Garnaut also describes the rivalries that exist among China’s political elite today.  Rivalries that have existed not only in the post-Deng Xiaoping reform period, but those that went as back as the times of the People’s Republic’s first foundation.  Rivalries that began between Bo’s father, Bo Yibo, and Xi Zhongxun, the father of China’s present top leader, Xi Jinping.  And most of all, the rivalries that have pitted reformists and conservatives within the Chinese Communist Party in a cross-generational power struggle.

Taichi at Chongqing's central square, 2007 (Private Collection)
I recommend this book to anyone even slightly interested in China.  For many, the Chinese Government is seen as an impenetrable juggernaut.  Not only that, the totalitarian nature of China’s Stalinist state has created an image in which everyone in the government has a common voice on anything even remotely important in the country. 

The Bo Xilai drama reminds us all that divisions do exist among the Chinese elite.  And more so, these divisions run very deep, originating from decades before any of the present leaders were even in power.  For some, this may be an indication that democracy is well and alive in China, even if it is only within the Communist Party (as in, no public participation).  Meanwhile, for others, this drama clearly indicates the inexistence of any form of democracy in China.  Not only that, China is also devoid of other norms and principles that go hand-in-hand with democracy, such as transparency, equality, human rights, and anti-corruption.