The Rumour Machine

Wang Hui on the dismissal of Bo Xilai

‘March 14’ used to be shorthand in China for the 2008 unrest in Tibet; now it stands for the 2012 ‘Chongqing incident’. It is unusual for municipal policy to have national impact, and rarer still for the removal of a city leader to become international news. Some observers have argued that the dismissal of Bo Xilai, the party secretary of Chongqing, is the most important political event in China since 1989.

Stories began to circulate on 6 February, when Wang Lijun, Chongqing’s police chief, fled to the US consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu. Neither the Chinese nor the American authorities have revealed anything about what followed, the US saying only that Wang had an appointment at the consulate and left the next day of his own accord. Since then he has been in the custody of the Chinese government. Reports in the foreign media fuelled online speculation, with the result that all sorts of rumours began to spread – some of them later shown to be true. There were stories about a power struggle between Bo and Wang; about the corruption of Bo’s family (how could they afford to send their son to Harrow, Oxford and Harvard?); about coup attempts by Bo and Zhou Yongkang, the head of China’s security forces; about business deals and spying; about a connection between Bo and the mysterious death of the British businessman Neil Heywood in November. Even supporters of what has been called the Chongqing experiment – the reforms implemented under Bo, who became party secretary there in 2007 – were unwilling to say that no corruption or malfeasance took place. In today’s China, these offer a convenient pretext for an attack on a political enemy.

As the stories multiplied, two main interpretations emerged. The first – supported by a good deal of leaked information – saw the Chongqing case as merely a matter of a local leader who had broken the law. The second linked the incident to political differences. With a population of 32 million, Chongqing is one of the PRC’s four centrally governed municipalities (the others are Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin). In the 1930s and 1940s, the city was an important arms-manufacturing centre for the Kuomintang, and today serves as a hub for much of south-west China. The Chongqing model operated within China’s existing political institutions and development structures, which emphasise attracting business and investment, but involved quite distinctive social reforms. Large-scale industrial and infrastructural development went hand in hand with an ideology of greater equality – officials were instructed to ‘eat the same, live the same, work the same’ as the people – and an aggressive campaign against organised crime. Open debate and public participation were encouraged, and policies adjusted accordingly. No other large-scale political and economic programme has been carried out so openly since the reform era began in 1978, soon after Mao’s death.

Both interpretations, one denying, the other privileging the political character of the Chongqing events, are partial. The important question is whether the scandal will encourage the development of a politics of democratic participation or merely end up reinforcing China’s practice of ‘backroom politics’. A critical moment came when Premier Wen Jiabao gave a press conference on 14 March at the end of the ‘Two Meetings’ – the National People’s Congress and the Political Consultative Conference – in Beijing. If there were different views about how to handle the Wang Lijun incident, or problems concerning Bo Xilai’s behaviour or that of his family, the Two Meetings would have been the appropriate place to discuss them. This wasn’t what happened.

According to media reports, on the morning of 3 March He Guoqiang, one of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee and the secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, visited the Chongqing delegation to the Two Meetings and was warmly welcomed by Bo Xilai and Huang Qifan, Chongqing’s mayor. On 8 March, Zhou Yongkang, another member of the Standing Committee and secretary of the Central Political and Legislative Committee, spoke at the Chongqing delegation’s policy deliberation meeting at the National People’s Congress. On 9 March, the Chongqing delegation held a press conference at which Bo Xilai and Huang Qifan took questions for nearly two hours. Yet at the closing press conference on 14 March, the final question (from a Reuters reporter) elicited a prepared response on the situation in Chongqing from Wen.

He began by acknowledging the achievements of ‘successive’ Chongqing governments, but then changed his tone: ‘The current Chongqing and government leadership must reflect on the Wang Lijun incident and learn lessons from it.’ He referred to the 1978 Central Committee plenum that announced the start of the reform policy, and even more pointedly to the CCP’s 1981 ‘Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party’, which officially declared the Cultural Revolution to have been a ‘disaster for the country and the people’. ‘We have resolved that we should free our minds and seek truth from facts, and we have formulated the basic guidelines for our party,’ he continued.

In particular, we have taken the major decision of reform and opening up in China, a decision that is crucial for China’s future and its destiny. What has happened shows that any practice that we take must be based on the experience and lessons we have learned from history and must serve the people’s interests. The actions that we take must be able to stand the test of history and the reality. I believe that everyone in China understands this, and I have confidence in our future.

It is nearly forty years since the end of the Cultural Revolution and the situation in China today is not remotely comparable to that of the 1970s. So why did Wen want to link Chongqing and the Cultural Revolution? The Chongqing model certainly has its faults, and they have occasioned substantial debate, but the criticisms should have led to improvements. There have been comparable problems in other regions – Guangdong and Wenzhou, for example – but Wen’s rhetorical invocation of the Cultural Revolution served to single out the Chongqing experiment and seal it up, like the Cultural Revolution itself, as a forbidden subject, not available for public debate or historical analysis and fit only for political condemnation. Those associated with it can now be vilified as power-seekers, conspirators, propagandists or reactionaries who want ‘to turn back the wheel of history’.

Around 9 o’clock the next morning, the People’s Daily website hinted on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, that there was about to be ‘an important news announcement’ (the Wang Lijun incident had been made public the same way). At 10.03 a.m., the Xinhua news agency reported on Weibo that Bo had been removed as Chongqing party secretary. Soon afterwards a number of leftist websites began to experience server problems, which lasted for the next five days, and activists were forbidden from mentioning the matter on Weibo. ‘What happened during the two days after 13.45 on 14 March 2012 can be described as a “palace coup”,’ a reporter for the Financial Times’s Chinese website declared. Around midnight on 15 March, Li Yuanchao, head of the Central Committee’s Organisational Department, and Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang arrived in Chongqing and announced Bo’s dismissal.

People who were old enough at the time remembered what the atmosphere was like after the mysterious death of Mao’s nominated successor Lin Biao in 1971. Information is selected or fabricated according to political need, and then released through channels determined by the same considerations. Rumours have flourished inside and outside China, and there are signs of conspiracy everywhere. Rumours are a product of backroom politics, and at the same time provide the means for backroom politics to come out into the open. On 10 April, another rumour went round: the government was going to make an important announcement. The statement came not in the main news bulletin at 7 p.m., but in the 11 o’clock news, when it was announced that Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, had been arrested on suspicion of murdering Heywood. Bo’s suspension from the Politburo and Central Committee was also announced – allegedly to allow serious violations of party discipline to be investigated. As for Heywood, there are plenty of contradictory accounts there too: the official statement calls him a businessman, but some British reporters have suggested he might have been a spy.

Websites critical of the government, such as Utopia (wuyou zhixiang), were shut down in the days before Gu was arrested to forestall any uncensored comments about her, though the reason given was to remove improper discussions of decisions made by the National People’s Congress. While leftist websites were being closed down, foreign sites, including ‘hostile websites’ like the Falun Gong’s that are usually blocked, were suddenly selectively unblocked, providing a conduit for more rumours to flow into China. The means of transmission itself tells us a lot, involving as it does collaboration between the Chinese and US authorities, as well as interaction between domestic and foreign media. It became difficult to distinguish between the coverage in the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Falun Gong’s outlet, the Epoch Times, or to differentiate them from Chinese newspapers and websites. The question here is whether there is a single intelligence at work, or a network of forces collaborating to bring about a particular result.

The government doesn’t always seem sure which line to take on the affair. On the one hand, with Wen’s press conference, Bo’s sacking and Gu’s arrest what was first said to be an ‘isolated incident’ has been turned into a situation of the utmost political gravity. Wen’s talk of the Chongqing reforms presaging a repeat of the Cultural Revolution seems intended to indicate that open politics – social experiment and competition between different political positions – will no longer be allowed in China. (The chief similarity with the Cultural Revolution, as many online commentators have pointed out, is the speed with which Bo was removed.)

Having ratcheted up the importance of the incident, the government then tried to downgrade it, releasing information through various channels about Bo and his family breaking the law, in an attempt to cast the matter as a merely criminal case. The Financial Times has claimed the affair shows that ‘the curtain that covers the highest-level secrets of China’s rulers is no longer so tight.’ But the ‘curtain’ has always opened to let through snippets of information at opportune moments. The aim of the current manoeuvres is to clamp down on political freedoms in order to make it easier to drive through deeply unpopular neoliberal measures. In the late 1980s, after some failed attempts to push through ‘price reforms’ on many basic commodities, the death of the former party leader Hu Yaobang – deposed several years before partly because of his leniency over student demonstrations – inspired the discontent that manifested itself in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere. After the students had been repressed the price reforms were pushed through without further protest. It is a pity that during the current celebrations of the 20th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘southern tour’ and his call for the speeding up of reforms, nobody is mentioning that the precondition for the accelerating marketisation of 1992 was the crackdown of 1989.

The southern tour opened the way for the privatisation of state-owned enterprises, leading to large-scale lay-offs and systemic corruption. Agricultural reforms caused crisis in rural areas, while the marketisation of social security systems, including medical insurance, led to increasing disparities of provision between rich and poor, country and city. This has led to unrest: in 2008, the state council announced that there were 128,000 ‘collective protest incidents’ in that year. The number has increased since then to 180,000 a year. There has been widespread discussion of the problems of state-owned enterprises, the agrarian crisis and the rising cost of education, housing and medical care, the so-called ‘new three great mountains’. In response to all this a directive to ‘pay more attention to social equality’ replaced the Central Committee’s 1990s policy of ‘giving priority to efficiency, with due consideration of equality’. Yet now that Hu Jintao and Wen – representing a new generation of national leaders – have consolidated their power, political reform has been put on hold and the bureaucratisation of state structures has continued apace.

The emergence of different local models was in clear opposition to this trend. In the past few years, observers from all over the world have come to study the experiments in Chongqing, Guangdong, Chengdu, Sunan and elsewhere, with Chongqing attracting more interest than most. The models in these cities were all constantly adjusted, partly as a result of keen competition between them but also because of the involvement in policy debate of local people, dissatisfied with the position of labour and the gap between rich and poor, rural and urban dwellers.

In Chongqing there was more emphasis than in some other places on redistribution, justice and equality, and because the province was already highly industrialised, state-owned enterprises were important to its model. Chongqing’s experiment with inexpensive rented housing, its experiment with land trading certificates, its strategy of encouraging enterprises to go global: all these, under the rubric ‘the state sector progresses, the private sector progresses,’ contributed to society’s debate. Chongqing may not have offered a perfect blueprint, and it’s hard to know whether Bo himself was corrupt, but its architects stressed the importance of equality and common prosperity, and tried to work towards them.

The Chongqing experiment, launched in 2007, coincided with the global financial crisis, which made a new generation feel less confident of the benefits of free-market ideology. The policies followed in Chongqing demonstrated a move away from neoliberalism at a time when the national leadership was finding it harder to continue with its neoliberal reforms. What the Chongqing incident now offers the authorities is an opportunity to resume its neoliberal programme. Just after Bo was sacked the State Council’s Development and Research Centre held a forum in Beijing at which the most prominent neoliberals in China, including the economists Wu Jinglian and Zhang Weiying, announced their programme: privatisation of state enterprises, privatisation of land and liberalisation of the financial sector. At almost the same time, on 18 March, the National Development and Reform Commission issued a report on ‘Important Points and Perspectives on the Deepening of Economic Structural Reform Priorities’. It contained plans for the privatisation of large sections of the railways, education, healthcare, communications, energy resources and so on. The tide of neoliberalism is rising again. But it won’t go unchallenged, even when left-wing websites have been closed down. In the past ten days both the People’s Daily and the Guangming Daily have devoted several pages to the achievements of state-owned enterprises and the argument against privatisation.

27 April