Rising Star In Chinese Communist Party Fired

Apr 10, 2012
Originally published on April 10, 2012 4:26 pm
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Now to a political scandal in China that touches on everything from corruption to murder to a power struggle within the ruling Communist Party. The scandal involves a man who was, until recently, one of the party's most charismatic up and coming leaders. His name is Bo Xilai and, as of today, his career is effectively over. The party has suspended him from the most powerful post that he held and it is linking him and his wife to a suspected murder.

And why does all this matter to Chinese politics more broadly? Here to explain is James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine. He's recently been based in China and is about to publish a book called "China Airborne."

Welcome, Jim.

JAMES FALLOWS: Hello, Audie. Nice to talk to you.

CORNISH: So Bo Xilai was the party leader in the major Chinese city of Chongqing. He was recently removed from that job earlier this year, so what is it that made him so significant to national politics?

FALLOWS: I think there are both personal and political ideological factors. Personally, he was about the only colorful politician in a Chinese system that prizes the system being bigger than any of the individual people. A friend of mine, Evan Osnos of The New Yorker, once compared him to - he said he was China's version of Huey Long and that conveys the fact that he was both leftist in his ideology, but also sort of cult of personality in the way he managed the politics in Chongqing. He was having anti-corruption campaigns and so he was the only person in the Chinese landscape in quite a while who seemed to be rising as a known political figure himself.

CORNISH: And that Huey Long title, I think, conveys some other things, as well, but explain how...

FALLOWS: Exactly.

CORNISH: ...Bo Xilai had this rapid fall from grace. I mean, how did this all start?

FALLOWS: Well, it's almost incredible and it must be stressed that nobody really knows everything that's happened and what's going to happen next, but back in February, a man named Wang Lijun, who was Bo Xilai's main partner in Chongqing - he was the chief of police there and had been leading a number of these anti-corruption, anti-mafia campaigns - incredibly sought asylum in the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, which is not far from Chongqing.

And it appeared - after that, it appeared that he had documents that were related to corruption in Chongqing. Documents apparently involving Bo Xilai and his wife, who is a very high flying former lawyer and businessperson. And it seems that these were related to the death in November of last year of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, in Chongqing in a hotel room.

And, to cut to the chase now, Bo Xilai and his wife and perhaps even their son are being, quote, "suspected," unquote, of having killed Mr. Heywood, the Britain.

CORNISH: I mean, this is all very messy, but it's happening as the Communist Party prepares to choose its new leaders this fall. So how does this affect that shift in power?

FALLOWS: Well, certainly, there's a personal factor in that Bo Xilai has been taken off the board for the foreseeable future. There's a factor that affects both internal Chinese politics and its dealing with the rest of the world, which is the very lack of transparency in the transfer of power of the world's most populous country, the second largest economy that, really, nobody knows how power is being transferred there.

Also, I think most people feel there's - one of the deepest ideological divisions in today's China is also playing itself out in this scandal. Bo Xilai set himself up as the tribune of the people who've been left out of China's economic miracle. He was having a kind of leftist revival in Chongqing that was supposed to speak up for the farmers, the people who've lost their land, etc. That is one part of the strain in today's China.

Another part, which is represented by people who seem to be threatened by Bo Xilai's rise were those who thought that China's future lay in having more orderly rule of law, having gradually liberalizing itself. And so those are really the two main forces contending for the next stage in China's evolution and he was the leader and the expression of one of them.

CORNISH: Jim, thanks for explaining it.

FALLOWS: My pleasure. Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: That was James Fallows from The Atlantic magazine on the story of Chinese Communist Party official Bo Xilai. And you can hear James Fallows most Saturdays on WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.



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