Bo Xilai may be gone, but the red songs remain

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So today, it finally happened, Bo Xilai has been ousted in what is perhaps the most significant purge in the Chinese leadership since Zhao Ziyang was put under house arrest in 1989. In hindsight, the signs that he would be put out to pasture have been growing, especially since his right-hand man and Chongqing enforcer Wang Lijun made his well-publicized trip to the US Consulate in Chengdu. Many column inches will be filled by the details of the palace intrigue following Bo’s denouement, about how his mighty opponents in other Party organizations, such as the Central Discipline Inspection Committee, had wanted to get rid of him, and how the final blows were delivered during last week’s NPC meeting in Beijing.

However, Bo has had an impact on Party policy that may long outlive his physical presence. His populist politics have raised the debate on the privileges of cadres, the fundamental problems in the housing market, rural-urban inequality, health care and other social issues. In the field of culture, his Red Culture drive has been taken over by the Party Centre in their recent Cultural Decision, and has become part of industrial policy in the cultural sphere.  Lei Feng has made a come-back with a vengeance, red tourism is all the vogue, the Socialist core value system is being put front and centre, and cultural activities integrating the army and the police are promoted.

I’m not sure to what extent this reflects Bo’s ideology, as opposed to his pragmatism and ambition. My personal belief is that Bo’s support for Red Culture can partly be seen as a safeguard measure: by presenting himself as faithful to classic Socialist ideals and a loyal Party member, he might have aimed to force anyone attacking him to portray themselves as critical of the Party’s history, thereby protecting himself against allegations of unfaithfulness. That way he thought he could make himself incontournable for a position in the Permanent Committee. The popularity of Red Culture in Chongqing certainly seems to have driven home the notion that support among the population for the maintenance of the current economic and political course is dwindling, and that a moral vacuum seems to have opened up in Chinese society.

If this is true, then Bo’s gamble seems to have misfired. However, it may have unintended consequences. Perhaps, his impact on policy and his function as a catalyst for the debate on relations between the Party, the State, the economy and the citizenry might be the true legacy of Bo Xilai. By using accusatory orthodoxy to gain popular support, he put the Party into a position where it had to be seen to do something about the issues he addressed. He has made the Party have to work harder to legitimize itself than it has done for a long time, and the struggle for the soul of the leadership isn’t finished by a long shot. There’s now a Bo-shaped hole in Chinese political discourse, and another contender may pick up some of his popularity and issues and take them further. Bo’s holier-than-thou posturing may have cost him his career, but the consequences will resonate through the political debate for a long time still.

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