In China, the political lens is focused on Bo Xilai, the disgraced former commerce minister and party chief of megalopolis Chongqing. While Bo’s contestation of the charges of bribery and abuse of power gripped the attention of the social media this week, Bo will probably not be a free man again and certainly not a public figure.
What the trial can’t undo is Bo’s legacy—which opened new channels for popular and elite dissent that is likely to haunt China’s new leadership.
The recent focus on Bo’s crimes and his ultimate punishment is vastly misplaced. In assessing China’s Bo problem, the real story is not bribery or corruption in the Communist Party. The leadership, which will surely be tested on that issue, at least will be undertaking a public campaign to address it and is making important progress.
Bo’s real legacy is in the way he eviscerated a slew of party norms by waging a public campaign for a senior leadership position. In doing so, he exposed dissonance in senior leadership circles over policies and even personalities–a dynamic that has not been observable in China at such a public level since the Tiananmen period. And most frightening for China’s new leaders: He came very close to getting away with it.
Bo’s ouster was driven not by his political crimes but because those closest to him slipped up and created a window for his enemies within the system to take him down. If Bo hadn’t overstepped and allegedly become involved in the cover-up of the death of Neil Heywood, a British businessman, and had Wang Lijun, a police official and Bo’s former ally, never fled to the American consulate in Chengdu, Bo Xilai might very reasonably be expected to be a powerful member of the Politburo Standing Committee walking the halls of power in Zhongnanhai instead of those at the Qincheng prison in Beijing.