Bo Expelled From Party Shows China Transition on Track: Analysts

Analysts including Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan, the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Lieberthal and University of Sydney’s Kerry Brown comment on China’s decision to expel former Politburo member Bo Xilai from the Communist Party.

Bo abused his power, bore “major responsibility” in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood and had improper sexual relations with several women, the official Xinhua News Agency said Sept. 28. China’s Politburo removed him from public office and transfered his case to the judicial system, it said.

Xinhua also announced on the same day that the 18th Party Congress would start Nov. 8. The congress will see more than 2,000 delegates from the 82-million member ruling party gather in Beijing to anoint new leaders.

Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

“It is an ancient Chinese tradition that a loser in a power struggle must be thoroughly discredited and found morally corrupt. Note, however, that so far, the focus is not on policy or political errors, probably for fear of spreading factional battle lines in a party that wants to emphasize unity. This was signaled earlier this year by General Secretary Hu Jintao.”

“This process seems to be moving faster for Bo than two previous cases, Chen Liangyu of Shanghai and Chen Xitong of Beijing, both of whom were expelled by the party and then prosecuted over longer periods. This suggests some urgency to putting the Bo case behind and focusing on the 18th Party Congress and its leadership arrangements.”

Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University:

“Surely there must have been a political struggle at the top over how harshly to deal with Bo. The ten day disappearance of Xi and the several week delay of the opening of the 18th Party Congress would seem to have been outward signs of such a struggle.”

“Presumably the struggle was over how harshly to deal with him. The side that turns out to have been the losing side must have argued that it would be enough to charge him with violations of Party discipline, such as not controlling his wife and subordinate police chief. If that was the disposition, then the punishment would have been some form of Party disciplinary sanction, possibly without even expelling him from the Party.”

“The fact that little direct evidence of crimes by Bo was introduced in the Gu and Wang trials made me think that the ‘go-lightly’ side was winning the debate.”

“But the outcome shows that the go-hard side won, because the charges against him (which of course will be reproduced in the outcome of his ‘trial’) are of the kind that truly end careers. He is expelled from the Party and handed over to the judicial authorities (which means into a criminal process) for crimes that are described as sweeping in nature and damaging in their consequences - i.e., as requiring a heavy punishment.”

“He’ll have to be given a long prison term. He will not necessarily have to serve all of it because noblesse oblige may lead the authorities to let him go home quietly after several years on health grounds. But he will be finished in politics.”

“Why did it turn out this way? Of course nobody knows. One theory that appeals to me (but I may be too naive) is that after some decades of building up a legal system and talking about ‘rule of law,’ given the huge publicity about the details of Bo’s case, and such public and hard to explain facts about the wealth of his family, the leaders felt that they couldn’t get away with covering up his crimes in front of either the informed middle class domestic audience or the international audience.

‘‘In other words, this can be seen as a small step forward for rule of law as a constraint on the leadership when they make decisions with political consequences.”

“A more cynical (and not necessarily incompatible) explanation would be that because Bo had widespread support in Chongqing and among some ‘left’ Party members and intellectuals for his ‘Chongqing model,’ and because any shred of political life left in him would threaten the potential revival of ideological controversy in Chinese politics (which has disappeared since Deng’s southern trip in 1992), the leadership was able to come together around the idea that for the sake of political stability, no possibility should be left for Bo to make a future political recovery, and that it would be necessary to ‘beat the dog in the water.’”

“The disposition of his case will send a signal that ideological challenges to the leadership consensus are not tolerated.”

“If, as I suspect, Xi was able to pull together this outcome, it seems to me it strengthens his power. It shows Xi’s ability to create a consensus in the leadership for an outcome. And it weakens the rationale for Hu to stay on for two years as Central Military Commission chief.”

Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution:

“There has been sharp debate over how to handle the Bo Xilai case, and at times in recent months authoritative insiders have felt that he would receive very lenient treatment or, at other times, that he would have the book thrown at him. Clearly, the decision last week was to throw the book at him.”

“It is standard procedure in such cases to first expel the accused from the Party and then have the judicial organs take over to pursue a criminal prosecution. The indications from the official announcement suggest that the criminal indictment will be very wide ranging and damaging -- at a minimum including major corruption and involvement in murder.”

“There is a hint that others involved in corruption with him will also be brought to book. If accurate, that is surprising -- the betting has been that the current leadership would draw a tight circle around Bo and not implicate others in order to avoid further infighting and disruption during a leadership transition.”

“The charges of sexual immorality and violations of discipline are Party (rather than criminal) offenses and help justify removing Bo from the Party.”

“The timing is not surprising. The leaders did not want delegates to the 18th Party Congress focusing on questions about what will happen to Bo Xilai. It would have been very surprising had the leaders not clarified the handling of the Bo case before the Congress convenes.”

“The timing is not a surprise but the range of the formal allegations is. The current leaders will use this to highlight that they are staunch in fighting corruption, moral turpitude, violent activity by political figures and violations of Party discipline. They are trying to turn a huge embarrassment, including the extent of corruption revealed at the top of the Party, into a propaganda victory. In this, they have a very high hill to climb, given the skepticism clearly evident on Chinese social media.”

Kerry Brown, professor and executive director of the University of Sydney’s China Studies Centre:

“This shows now the consensus in the leadership is that they can throw everything at Bo and go for complete character destruction, throwing open all his previous career, his private life, etc.”

“Hu Jintao called Wang Lijun a traitor to the Party and state earlier in the year, but I think in reality the belief in the party elite is that it is Bo who was the traitor in opening up China to American involvement through mismanagement of Wang, and then in the murder by his wife of Heywood.”

“I guess this treatment shows a lot of anger. At the end of the day, too, this outcome shows that for all its attempts to show a better nature, the Party remains at heart ruthlessly focused on power, and absolutely unforgiving to those who are seen as impeding this by making the Party weak. Bo’s great crime was to challenge this, and for that he is now consigned to a sort of hellish wilderness.”

Christopher Clarke, retired senior China analyst at the U.S. Department of State who is now an independent consultant:

“Bo’s downfall fits a pattern in each past leadership transition since the death of Deng Xiaoping. Skeptics may rightly suggest that similar charges could be laid against almost any high-ranking Chinese leader, but Bo made himself the political nail that stuck out and, in the Chinese saying, almost certainly had to be pounded down.”

“Bo’s downfall removes any threat to a smooth succession at the congress by Xi Jinping to the top positions of party chief and (next spring), president. He likely will also become commander-in-chief of the military either this fall or within the next two years.”

“Bo, with a flamboyant personality, a cohort of like-thinking officials who are out-of-sync with the prevailing leadership policy consensus, considerable popular support, and impeccable revolutionary credentials as the son of one of Deng Xiaoping’s close comrades, posed a major threat to Xi’s ability to consolidate his power quickly and smoothly.”

“Removing Bo served the dual purpose of removing a potentially destabilizing element in the succession and, to quote another Chinese proverb, ‘killing a chicken to scare the monkeys.’ It will damp down anyone else’s ambition to challenge the existing succession arrangement or threaten Xi’s position after the Congress.”

“In a sense, Wang Lijun’s entry into the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu was a god-send for the leadership in that it brought to a head the question of what to do with Bo Xilai, whom many Chinese and outside analysts thought would remain in the top leadership -- and possibly even enter its standing committee -- thereby leaving a ticking political time bomb for Xi Jinping to deal with.”

“Jiang Zemin faced a similar challenge in the early 1990s from Beijing party chief Chen Xitong, who was also purged from the party and sentenced to prison on charges on which many other leaders could have been equally justly accused. Current party chief and president Hu Jintao likewise engineered the removal of politburo member and Shanghai party secretary Chen Liangyu who had challenged his authority.”

“The main difference this time is that the removal of the threat took place before, not after the handover of power. In both earlier cases, after the ‘killing of the chicken,’ no ‘monkey’ within the leadership stepped forward to present a significant political challenge to the successor.”

“Bo’s removal is also the culmination of a year of serious challenges faced by China’s leadership, including a faltering economy, increasing disagreement within the leadership about the need for significant political and structural reform, deteriorating relationships with many of China’s neighbors (including Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam) as well as the U.S., increasing social unrest and protest, and the mysterious recent two-week disappearance of successor-designate Xi Jinping.”

“The leadership undoubtedly is hoping that having disposed of the political element of the Bo imbroglio, they can proceed with a smooth leadership transition and return their attention to trying to ameliorate -- if not solve -- their many and serious problems.”

June Teufel Dreyer, professor of political science at the University of Miami:

“Having been expelled from the party, I believe Bo no longer has immunity from trial by the state. I’d been speculating that his trial wouldn’t be until after the party congress had solidified the succession to Hu and Wen. So it’s likely we can expect more salacious details when that happens.”

“Having the kitchen sink thrown at him reminds me of earlier diatribes against ‘the doctrine of the wavering middle,’ wherein the party decided that no one should be portrayed as having elements of both good and evil within them. They were either wholly devoted to the party and the people or wholly evil and against them. A domestic version of Mao’s ‘whoever is not with us is against us’ in foreign policy. The practice outlived Mao.”

“Somewhat ironic that Bo, who wanted to go back to the ‘Good Old Days’ has been besmirched by one of the less savory practices of the ‘Good Old Days.’”

Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in England:

“It means they have agreed on what to do with Bo Xilai. You could see that in the trials of Gu Kailai and Wang Lijun he was not directly implicated. Until now, the top leadership was not able to agree on it, which is why he was not mentioned in the Gu and Wang trials. It means the leadership’s agreed on what to do with Bo Xilai, which was the difficult thing.”

“If they are saying ‘huge bribes,’ that has an implication on sentencing. Small bribes is for jailing; really huge bribes are potentially a capital offense. I don’t expect Bo to be sentenced to death but it will be a harsh sentence. He will live.”

“It’s a trade off. The whole Bo Xilai outcome could only be decided as part of the horse trading for the leadership mix and that’s why the timing of the two things came together.”

“Leaders in various power blocks were willing to bring Bo Xilai down. Having done so it was difficult to agree what to do with Bo Xilai. You will have a lot people with princeling backgrounds who would not like to see Bo being too harshly treated.”

“The Bo issue was tied up with the whole package for the succession. How much would the princelings be willing to pay to get Bo Xilai a light sentence. The answer was not too much.”

“It looks as though Bo’s case will be settled before the congress. Because it’s all tied up with the whole package of succession. Now, once this is agreed and a date for the Congress has been set, it means that they have basically a lineup for the new leadership.”

Minxin Pei, professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College:

“The announcement of Bo’s expulsion is no surprise. It conforms to how the party has dealt with disgraced senior officials in the past. It also shows how powerful Bo’s enemies are. They simply would not accept anything less because that could leave the door open for Bo to make a comeback. They have to bring him down from heaven and send him to hell.”

“The harsh punishment of Bo gives the new leadership a clean slate and helps with bolstering its authority. Of course, there is one more piece of unfinished business - Bo’s show trial. That may happen within a year, but not necessarily very soon. He probably will get 15-18 years, similar to the sentences received by fallen Politburo members in the last 20 years.”

Cheng Li, China specialist at the Brookings Institution:

“With the Bo Xilai case, they not only talk about corruption but they also talk about womanizing. These all reflect the effort to try to improve the image of the leadership. They now punish leaders for doing these terrible things.”

“Of course the public will be cynical but at least they can still say from time to time these people will be caught. From time to time it’s too outrageous and they have to deal with that”.

Perry Link, a China scholar and languages professor at the University of California, Riverside:

“There’s nothing surprising here. The Communist Party of China, beginning in the 1930s, has never compromised with the people it purges. The kitchen-sink-throw is normal. Charges like bribery and sexual misconduct are standard in this kind of political combat.”

“In this case, they may well be true, but the same charges would be true of so many officials, all of the time, that we must view their use here as political acts, not as coming from any genuine legal or moral concerns.”

“That said, Bo will be sent to a comfortable prison, not a squalid cell of the kind the vast majority of Chinese prisoners endure. In the past, the privilege of getting cushy treatment in prison has been just one more perk of membership in the Communist elite.”

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the government and international studies department at Hong Kong Baptist University:

“That’s big news that has required a lot of political negotiation and consensus building but also political courage to go that far to the cost of postponing by a few weeks the Congress. That is the smallest price. The biggest is that this decision may have alienated a number of neo-cons et al.”

“A lot of Chinese hope that will help the incoming leadership (with or without Hu) to revive political reforms. The problem is that many top leaders could be accused of the same crime or misbehaviors as Bo, so we need to be extra careful about the political implications of this big news.”

“But on the whole, what the Communist Party leadership and Xinhua say today correspond to what a lot of us have known, speculated or thought for quite a long time.”

David Kelly, research director at consulting firm China Policy:

“It’s a temporary alleviation of pressure on the party. Bo was like an undigested goat’s head in the tiger’s belly and now he’s been expelled. His fate is not known but not bright.”

“Bo was not the whole bone of contention. He was an expression of the need for more dynamic actors in the party. Those needs have not disappeared. There’s still a need for people to act as a lightning rod for popular likes and dislikes of the people.”

“You’ve removed him, now you’ve got to find someone else, otherwise the party is left with lots of yes men.”

— With assistance by Kevin Hamlin

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