The drama surrounding the purge of Bo Xilai, including the attempted defection of Chongqing’s police chief and the alleged murder of a British businessman, sounds like a far-fetched plot from a spy thriller. That would make it Tinker, Tailor, Bo Xilai. The Communist party, however, is determined to read the vastly damaging episode not as sordid intrigue but as morality play, perhaps Bo’s Seven Deadly Sins.
In proclaiming Bo’s suspension from the Politburo and the arrest of his wife on suspicion of murder, an editorial in the People’s Daily, the Communist party mouthpiece, said: "China is a socialist country ruled by law, and the sanctity and authority of law shall not be trampled.” It went on: "Whoever has violated party discipline or broken the law will be dealt with severely and will not be tolerated, no matter . . . how high his position is.”
The message sounded blunt. No one stands above the law. But what precisely is the law in a one-party state without properly independent courts? And how can the Communist party talk blithely of uniform laws for all when it is well known there is one set of rules for party members and another set for everyone else?
That the Communist leadership should resort to purging one of its own in so public a fashion shows just what a threat to its authority Bo represented. Ousting him is a last-ditch attempt to put what had looked like a smooth leadership transition back on track. Yet the episode, which has riveted the Chinese public, exposes deep rifts within the party’s upper echelons that may yet crack further open before a new standing committee is installed in October.
The invocation of the "rule of law” is partly a cloak under which Bo can be bundled from the scene. Even more important, it is an attempt to reaffirm the party’s legitimacy, which has been scorched by the Bo affair and by widespread public perception of its corruption. For the Communist party, it has become vital to cast Bo and his wife as criminals and itself as the paramount upholder of the law.
Bo, after all, was popular. His campaign against crime syndicates in Chongqing was arbitrary and brutal. It included swift executions and the use of torture. But he presented his crusade as a drive to impose law and order and an effort to root out pervasive corruption. Vigilante justice it may have been. But justice of any sort had been seen to be in short supply.
That is why it has become vital for the Communist party to regain the high ground for itself. A clue in the People’s Daily editorial is the elision of the idea of law and that of party rules. "People will see CPC’s [Communist party of China’s] solid resolution of safeguarding the party’s discipline and the rule of law,” it said, as if they were the same thing.
Dragonomics managing director Arthur Kroeber says that compared with 25 years ago, China is a far more rules-based society. More day-to-day transactions come under the rubric of established rules. But the system remains wildly arbitrary, he says. "It is understood by all that the Communist party has its own set of rules.” That is known to everyone in China. It is why, for example, Communist party officials are able to confiscate land from peasants or buy it for a song. Foreign businesses know it too. It is the reason their technology can sometimes be stolen with impunity or why their executives may face harassment under state security laws.
That arbitrariness is simultaneously necessary for the party’s survival and damaging to its image. The Chinese public knows full well that Bo is not the only princeling to have abused his position. The country is awash with stories of the privileged and their offspring acting with impunity and flaunting their increasingly spectacular wealth. The party apparatchik brought low may not be the biggest criminal, but the person with the fewest allies or the most threatening to the faade of unity.
On Tuesday, the same day Bo was suspended from the Politburo, Wen Jiabao, the premier, sought to tap these deep traditions in the cause of party legitimacy. Citing a passage from The Analects of Confucius, he said: "To govern means being upright. If you lead the people by being upright and set a good example for others, who will dare not behave correctly?” He was talking to Leung Chun-ying, the man selected to run Hong Kong, a city also bubbling with allegations of business corruption and the abuse of political power. Hong Kong’s leadership too must regain its moral authority.
Bo’s populism and vigilante justice threatened to rob the Communist party of its legitimacy. And that, as Bo now knows, runs counter to Chinese law.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.