There is no Weltinnenpolitik yet, but there are cross-civilizational trends.
The City of Red Songs
There would be no second chance. Gerhard Schröder, former chancellor of Germany, was in a hurry in June 2011, on the sidelines of a forum in southwestern China’s metropolis of Chongqing. He was therefore lacking the time to attend one of the red-song nights that were customary there. But he still pleased his interlocutors with a German proverb: Where people sing, you can settle down – wicked people sing no songs.
In full, the red-songs custom advocated by Chongqing’s party chief Bo Xilai was Singing revolutionary songs, Reading classic books, telling stories and spreading mottos. There would be nine more months of that before Bo Xilai was toppled by his CCP comrades.
A Hudong article explained the activity at the time. It was a mass concept, started in Chongqing in 2008, which was greeted with enthusiasm there, and elsewhere in China. The concept wasn’t outdated, because
if a country and a nation have no correct thought and advanced culture, it will lose its backbone. The current deep changes of the economic system, the structure of society, and the profound adjustment of interest patterns must be reflected in the ideological field. There is diversity in peoples’ minds, and although the mainstream is positive and healthy, while some peoples’ material life conditions have improved, spiritual life is somewhat empty. To change that condition, and to ensure a safe passing of the torch in the cause of the party and the country, the red flag must be righteously upheld, the ideology of Marxism must be consolidated in its guiding position within the ideological field, and the attractiveness and the cohesive power of socialist ideology must be strengthened.
一个国家和民族没有正确的思想、先进的文化，就会失掉主心骨。当前，经济体制深刻变革、社会结构深刻变动、利益格局深刻调整，必然反映到意识形态领域。人们的思想日趋多元多变多样，虽然主流积极健康向上，但一些人物质生活改善了，精神生活却有些空虚。为了彻底改变这种状况，保证党和国家的事业薪火相传，必须理直气壮地举红旗，不断巩固马克思主义在意识形态领域的指导地位，增强社会主义意识形态的吸引力和凝聚力。[Links within these lines omitted.]
According to the HuDong article, CCP politbureau member and Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai (薄熙来) had deplored the phenomenon of young people who sang decadent songs (唱 .. 靡靡之音, chàng mímí zhī yīn), who were reading “fast-food” kinds of literature (读 .. 快餐文化, dú kuàicān wénhuà), told “low and vulgar stories” (讲 .. 低俗故事, jiǎng dīsú gùshì), and “spread pornographic or dull scripts/pieces” (传 .. 黄段子、灰段子, chuán huáng duànzi, huī duànzi).
So, apparently, there were dirty songs, too. Maybe things weren’t as simple as Schröder had believed. At least one reader and forum commenter of China’s Huanqiu Shibao didn’t trust Schröder’s expertise and wrote:
OK, listen [to the red songs], you won’t comprehend them anyway. It will be as if you were listening to folk songs.
The “Chongqing Model” was controversial, at least in the perceivable medial public of China. The party elite wasn’t entirely in love with Bo’s pretentious neo-Maoism. A vice president of Law School at China University of Political Science and Law was quoted by the English-language party mouthpiece “Global Times”:
There have been 104,000 “Red Song Concerts” in Chongqing, with 80 million participants. It cost 1,500 yuan ($231) per person for onsite renting and costume expenses, 210 million yuan in total. Adding in the offwork compensation and transportation the final cost is 270 billion [sic – probably means million – JR] yuan. Why don’t they use the money for health insurance?
Bo Xilai’s “Populism”, 2007 – 2012
At the grassroots, however, Bo’s leadership style appears to have worked (maybe it still does). The Chongqing Model wasn’t just about folklore, red or otherwise.
Chongqing (Sichuan province) residents set off firecrackers today, celebrating the execution of the provincial-level city’s former chief justice Wen Qiang (文强), cqnews.net reported in July 2010. The Wall Street Journal explained:
Wen Qiang was put to death following the rejection in May by China’s Supreme Court of an appeal of his conviction on charges including bribery, shielding criminal gangs, rape and inability to account for millions of dollars in cash and assets, according to Xinhua news agency. Xinhua didn’t say how Mr. Wen was executed.
Punching black crime and uprooting vice (拳打黑除恶) was the name of the campaign that cost Wen his life – according to the historical records as Bo would have it, he and his police chief Wang Lijun not only battled against gangs, but infiltrated cadres, too.
The now defunct website Chinageeks published an English translation of Zhang Wen, a former chief editor of the Xinhua magazine Globe:
Bo Xilai and the “northeast tiger” Wang Lijun entered Chongqing and started a war and began a “battling corruption and evil” movement that has gradually begun to spread nationwide and worldwide. This action is in line with the people’s wishes, and at the same time, also in line with what central authorities wish.
At first, the public opinion was very one-sided; no one could find any fault with Bo. The controversy and difference of opinions came with the case of Li Zhuang. Proponents of the democratic rule of law questioned and criticized the legality of Chongqing [court] proceedings, but Bo Xilai’s supporters hold that punishing lawyers who defend “bad people” is appropriate.
Bo Xilai’s wife Gu Kailai is a high-level lawyer who has been working for many years. The two have been together for many years and Bo himself was once the head of the Ministry of Commerce, and thus often negotiated international legal issues with foreign opponents. Because of this, Bo Xilai should have a solid conception and knowledge of the law.
But in the end, in the Li Zhuang case, the organs of justice in Chongqing left a bad impression that they might violate legal procedures. Precisely because of this, some people’s opinions on Bo Xilai changed dramatically. I myself once wrote an essay expressing pity that Bo Xilai hadn’t turned out to be the sort of high-quality modern politician [we had hoped].
Chongqing was a small pond for a big fish – Bo Xilai appeared to have hoped for a permanent seat in the CCP’s central politburo, but landed the job as party secretary of Chongqing instead. Chongqing wasn’t an insignificant city, but it was far from where central Chinese power was. Only an alernate politburo membership linked him to Beijing. From 2008, his Maoist song events raised nationwide attention, and even beyond China – Henry Kissinger apparently leapt at the chance Schröder had missed.
In 2011, Bo Xilai started his second campaign for a permanent seat at the CCP’s top table. While the Economist found Bo’s style refreshing, it noted nervously that
The region’s party chief, Bo Xilai, is campaigning for a place on the Politburo Standing Committee in next year’s leadership shuffle. He looks likely to succeed. Like every other Chinese politician since 1949, he avoids stating his ambitions openly, but his courting of the media and his attempts to woo the public leave no one in any doubt. Mr Bo’s upfront style is a radical departure from the backroom politicking that has long been the hallmark of Communist rule and would seem like a refreshing change, were it not that some of his supporters see him as the Vladimir Putin of China. Mr Bo is a populist with an iron fist. He has waged the biggest crackdown on mafia-style gangs in his country in recent years. He has also been trying to foster a mini-cult of Mao, perhaps in an effort to appeal to those who are disillusioned with China’s cut-throat capitalism.
Bo didn’t appear to aim for the top job as secretary general, the Economist noted, as that position appeared to have been reserved for Xi Jinping. Indeed, Xi succeeded Hu Jintao as party secretary general in autumn 2012, and as state chairman in March 2013.
Bo Xilai’s plans didn’t work that smoothly. In November 2011, a British citizen, Neil Heywood, died in a hotel in Chongqing. Given that Chinese courts don’t work independently from the party, the circumstances of his death can’t be considered resolved. A Chinese court found Gu Kailai, Bo Xilai’s wife, guilty of killing Heywood, and after only one day in court, she got a suspended death sentence.
The BBC‘s China editor Carrie Gracie tried to shed light on the circumstances of Bo Xilai’s rise and fall, and the role Heywood’s death played in the latter, but didn’t find too many interlocutors. Instead, she presented a Rocky Horror Picture Show of elite power struggles with Chinese characteristics. Bo Xilai as the avenger of the common man, a crashing, media-savvy scourge of organized crime, who addressed the public directly, without party media filtering. That hadn’t happened since Mao’s days – “think Donald Trump”.
With support from local police chief Wang Lijun, who fancied leading roles in martial-arts television, too, Bo had exercised a regime that labeled opponents as mafiosi and not only jailed them, but expropriated them too, in favor of Chongqing’s budgets.
It isn’t contested that Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun prosecuted the real or supposed gangsters’ advocates, too, with questionable means. Gracie quotes one of these advocates, Li Zhuang (see above, Zhang Wen’s criticism of Bo Xilai), as Li describes how he was arrested by Wang Lijun personally:
The scene was so over-the-top, loads of police cars surrounding the plane, riot police in helmets and camouflage, armed with submachine guns. I asked, “Why the big show? Is it Obama’s state visit or are you capturing Osama Bin Laden?”
We were surrounded by a huge scrum of reporters. He wanted to show his authority on camera. He was in a trench coat, hands in his pockets. He said: “Li Zhuang, we meet again.”
There were admirers of Bo and Wang, there were critics and enemies, and there were people who detested the two. But at the grassroots, the fans appeared to be numerous. According to Gracie, there are still many.
Making inconvenient lawyers disappear was no unique feature of Bo Xilai, however. The party leadership with Xi Jinping at the core has been proving for years that to them, the rule of law is a theroretical nicety they may or may not care about.
Gracie reduces the causes of conflict between the noisy polit-soloist Bo Xilai and the basically “collectivist” leadership in Beijing on a personal rivalry between princeling Bo and princeling Xi.
Certainly, top politicians’ egos can hardly be overestimated, and when they are Chinese, ostentatious modesty shouldn’t fool anyone.
But Xi alone wouldn’t have gotten Bo under control. Neither with the sudden Neil-Heywood scandal – that became known as the Wang-Lijun incident in China after the police chief fled into the next US consulate and being passed on to the central authorities from there (but only after having spilled the beans). Nor otherwise.
The question suggests itself if Bo Xilai’s career wasn’t finished in summer 2011 anyway, given wide-spread disapproval among the party elite, of his egotistic leadership style in Chongqing.
“Unity is strength” was one of the “red songs” Bo Xilai had them sing in Chongqing (above: October 8, 2009). But it wasn’t only the Xi faction that saw a lack of just that on Bo’s part. Bo was putting himself forward, and that had been a taboo during all the post-Mao years.
He didn’t denigrate his leading comrades – appearances like that of Donald Trump as a campaigner, cursing fellow members of his political class, would have been inconceivable. But putting himself into the limelight (and casting it away from others) amounted to the same thing, by Chinese standards. Besides, given his anti-corruption renown, sanctimonious as it may have been, could have threatened his “comrades”. A tribun within their ranks – that couldn’t work.
Xi Jinping and his predecessor Hu Jintao are said to be rivals. But within the Hu camp, Bo’s populism didn’t seem to resonate either. On the contrary: Wen Jiabao, chief state councillor (aka “prime minister”) during the Hu Jintao era, had been a tireless, even if unsuccessful, advocate of political reform, way beyond economics or technology.
At a press conference in March 2012, after the closing ceremony of the annual “parliament” plenary sessions, Wen warned that China wasn’t immune against another cultural revolution. That John Garnaut, an Australian correspondent in Beijing, got the opportunity to talk with Hu Dehua, one of Hu Yaobang’s sons, may also count as an indication that the comparatively liberal factions in the party leadership were at least as sick of Bo Xilai’s revolutionary operas, as were the Xi supporters.
Garnaut, two weeks after Wen’s press conference, in an indirect account of his conversation with Hu Dehua*):
Hu Dehua told his father how pessimistic he felt about his country’s future. Hu Yaobang agreed that the methods and ideologies of the 1987 anti-liberalization movement came straight from the Cultural Revolution. But he told his son to gain some historical perspective, and reminded him that Chinese people were not joining in the elite power games as they had 20 years before. He called the anti-liberalization campaign a “medium-sized cultural revolution” and warned that a small cultural revolution would no doubt follow, Hu Dehua told me. As society developed, Hu Yaobang told his son, the middle and little cultural revolutions would gradually fade from history’s stage.
From there, everything went fast. Still in March, Bo was dismissed as Chongqing’s party chief. He also lost his alternate membership in the politburo. In summer 2012, his wife Gu Kailai got her commuted death sentence, and in September 2013, Bo was sentenced to life in prison – based on the usual charges for unrigged politicians: corruption.
Is there a Chongqing Heritage?
At first glance, Bo Xilai’s “populism” or “Maoism” is finished. But Bo counted as a champion of many Chinese from the political left. A comment in German weekly Die Zeit, in September 2013, saw the verdict against Bo as a signal from the top that resistance against economic reform was futile.
To assess Bo Xilai’s political heritage objectively. The CCP may be beyond the era when beaten opponents were airbrushed from all photos and records. But the question about how publicly or privately-owned China’s economy should be might impose itself with any questions about Bo Xilai, and the now seven-member standing committee of the politburo can’t use such questions.
A political scientist of Beijing University, He Weifang (贺卫方), hinted at problems in assessing the Chongqing Model’s performance, from 2007 to 2012:
It is generally believed that the so-called “Chongqing Model” is mainly shaped by three aspects: “red culture” on the political level, “targeted actions against dark and evil forces in Chongqing“, and the reduction of the income gaps between the poor and the rich. The most criticized aspects are the former two, although there is support for the two of them in Chongqing and elsewhere. The third aspect isn’t that controversial. However, all data published concerning the efficiency of the measures taken to narrow the income gap are actually issued by the Chongqing authorities, and therefore lacking neutral assessment. Also, we can see that the whole process is strongly government-led, whose focus isn’t on creating a market logic of equal opportunities. If this approach will or will not lead to mistakes in financial policies, including the rural land policies‘ impartiality, is also questionable. And then there are concerns about life today being lead on future earnings, short-term inputs being made to curry favor with the public, which may come at high future costs.
If Bo Xilai was a populist, one of Donald Trump’s kind, or Putin’s, or Neil Farage’s, or whoever, one has to ask oneself how much influence he has maintained over Chinese politics to this day. After all, populists like Geert Wilders aren’t ineffective, merely because they can’t lay their hands on the imperial regalia.
When looking at European populism – that’s only a snapshot, of course -, one can get the impression that populists may not be elected, but they do leave marks on politics, from Merkel’s Willkommenskultur back to the traditional Christian Democrats’ policies, and Britain’s Brexit, implemented not by its original proponents, but by Theresa May, who had used to be a lukewarm supporter of Britain’s EU membership.
Populism is hardly ever the common peoples’ business, but that of the elites. The battles are fought within the political class, as observed by Hu Yaobang in the late 1980s. That is about as true in Europe. However, these battles within the superstructure may create or intensify certain trends in the public mood – and once policies have moved sufficiently into the “populist” direction, the support for these parties wanes, and the electorate turns back to the long-established parties. After all, Joe Blow doesn’t want to look like an extremist.
When Xi Jinping announced China’s new role as a guardian of free trade at the Davos forum in January, German Handelsblatt China correspondent Stephan Scheuer hailed the party and state leader’s “dressing-down for populists”. In Davos, Xi had become “a pioneer of fair-minded globalization”.
What could be beginning to show in China is a comparatively strong Maoist component in propaganda, as long as this doesn’t come at the cost of China’s privileged, and as long as this doesn’t require substantial reallocation of means or wealth to poor classes of population, or laggard regions. But whenever the name “Bo Xilai” should appear in any token event, the exorcists will be just around the corner.