Why is it that when Ai Weiwei is detained, the west assumes that he is a victim of trumped-up charges by the government, but when Bo Xilai is dismissed as the Chongqing party chief having angered the central party leaders, London and Washington follow every step of Beijing?
The political upheaval triggered by the downfall of Bo and the “Chongqing model” – is still unfolding in China. Although the model is not fundamentally different from the national agenda of neoliberal global integration, it included more independent social policies. These proved so popular, it took what the Financial Times has called a “palace coup” to crush it.
Corruption charges have been brought against Bo, and his wife Gu Kailai is detained, suspected of murder. So far nothing is proven, despite a smear campaign against them. Regardless of whether any hard evidence eventually emerges to prove them guilty, the persecution of the practitioners of the Chongqing model, and of those who campaigned for it, is not motivated by a desire to stop corruption or solve a murder case, but by a sharp political conflict. Under attack are not only these individuals, but also forces supporting the search for an alternative to the dominant growth pattern and the Chongqing model itself, with all of its hallmarks: changhong, or “singing red songs”; dahei, smashing criminal gangs and corruption; and minsheng, promotion of distributive social policies.
So far, the most astonishing thing is that nothing has been established beyond the fact that Neil Heywood, a British businessman who worked for a firm with M16 links, died in a Chongqing hotel. The UK foreign secretary confirmed in April that the British consulate in Chongqing was notified of Heywood’s death by “overconsumption of alcohol”, and in November, the family informed consular staff of their decision to have his body cremated. It was also reported that his relatives mentioned a heart attack and dismissed suggestions of foul play.
According to several versions of an increasingly colourful story, Gu asked Heywood to help her transfer a large sum of money abroad, the two disputed the commission, and he threatened to expose her assets and their transaction. Remarkably, once again, “there was no paper trail” (the Washington Post).
Similarly, Wang Lijun, Chongqing’s former police chief who entered the US consulate in Chengdu on 6 February, is said to have documents implicating Bo and Gu. However, US officials say Wang did not hand over any papers.
As a Guardian report rightly asks: What evidence exists of murder? Can the murder charge be proved? Many in China believe that none of the increasingly implausible speculations can ever be lawfully proven: there is no body; the witnesses are unreliable; in China, judicial independence, professionalism and fair trial are not always likely; and in this case the political motives of the accusers have predetermined the outcome of any investigation.
This is not to downplay the seriousness of corruption. Official corruption has ranked number one of China’s social ills in several popular surveys. Indeed, it is such an entrenched problem that it is used as a political weapon, to bring down one’s enemies or to rally unity: not many people dare disobey the leadership because so few are clean enough not to fear corruption charges themselves. Often the charge of corruption is only activated politically, aided by a tightly controlled media.
The crackdown has not stopped with Gu and Bo. Party leaders have demanded that cadres take a stand by denouncing Bo while declaring loyalty to President Hu Jintao’s central government. By mid-April, more than 210,000 online “rumours” had been removed, and many leftist websites shut down. Thus a crackdown on rumour is used to legitimate political suppression. The officials vowed that any “violation of the constitution, malicious attack on state leaders or unfounded comments on the 18th party congress” must be crushed. People by such pressure are reminded of the cultural revolution purges.
In the campaign against Chongqing, the degree of oppression directly reflects the extent of resistance. Instead of taking the responsibility for accumulated social and environmental problems and redressing policy mistakes in the last decade, China’s leaders are determined to suppress dissent while paving the way for their next big move: further privatisation and financial liberalisation, as made clear by the China Development Forum 2012 in March, following the World Bank recommendations in February, alongside “political reform”, which will legitimise and institutionalise the spectacular personal economic gains privatisation has allowed. To push these reforms through, the regime may become even more repressive in its use of state violence.
The current crisis may be the last milestone in the Chinese path of negating socialism. What is extraordinary about it is the alliance of a Communist leadership, rightwing anti-Communist factions inside and outside China (including Falun Gong), and western governments and press – a phenomenal example of 21st-century postmodern politics.
Lin Chun teaches comparative politics at the London School of Economics.