Dramatic political events have occurred in the Chongqing municipality in China since the beginning of 2012. On 6 February, the former police chief and vice mayor of the metropolis, Wang Lijun mysteriously visited the US consulate in the nearby Chengdu city. Although the government later claimed that it was an isolated event, a series of related events took place immediately. On 14 March, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao provided an unusually harsh critique of the Chongqing party leadership by implying that they had followed a path parallel to the cultural revolution. In official Chinese political parlance, the cultural revolution is referred to as the so-called, “ten years of calamities”. On the following day, the Chongqing Communist Party secretary Bo Xilai – the son of late and influential veteran Communist Party of China (CPC) leader Bo Yibo – was removed from his post. On 10 April 2012, the central leadership suspended Bo Xilai’s membership in the politburo and the central committee of the CPC.
We do not know the actual story behind Wang Lijun’s visit to the US consulate as yet, but two sets of rumours – opposite in their reasoning to each other – have been floated around. Some suggest that Wang found evidence of illegal business operations by Bo Xilai’s wife who is a retired lawyer and had to flee to the US consulate to avoid political persecution from Bo, who is a member of the politburo. Others offered a different story in which Wang actually found evidence of illegal business operations by Prime Minister Wen’s family which controls a large share of China’s jewellery industry. Wang went to the US consulate because Bo Xilai could not protect him from the central leaders’ pressures.
What has happened in Chongqing in the last two months is perhaps the most significant political event in China in the recent two decades. It involves an unusually open political struggle at the 25-member politburo level of the CPC. It is also marked by a high level of public discussion of the event. Many people and leftist intellectuals have expressed sympathy and support to Bo Xilai and the “Chongqing model” that he has been seen to represent ideologically.
So what is the whole struggle about? What impact does the Chongqing event have on Chinese politics and the left in the country? This article will first review the so-called Chongqing model and its conflict with the mainstream path, and then discuss the different implications of the Chongqing event both in the short and long-terms.
The Chongqing Model
From the late 1970s China has been shifting away from state socialism and has of late steadily adopted a neoliberal model of development marked by massive layoffs, privatisation and increasing market liberalisation. The Chinese version of capitalism achieved fast growth at the cost of severe and rising inequality, a deteriorated environment and widespread corruption. These problems in turn created serious threats to the China growth model itself. With unsustainably heavy reliance on investment and export, depletion of natural resources and the lack of confidence and support from the working people, the internal contradictions of the current development path has begun to unravel in recent years. The increasingly large scale strikes and more and more frequent “mass incidents” in various areas suggest that the relations between the ruling class and the working people has been far from “harmony”. In particular, workers in the public sector who experienced the socialist era have pioneered these struggles, whose numbers are only rising.
It is in this context of a crisis in the current growth model that we need to appreciate the essence of the Chongqing model. Bo Xilai was one of the most notable leaders of the CPC who tried to rethink the mainstream developmental path in order to maintain the existing ruling order, ever since he took up the post of secretary of the CPC in Chongqing. A campaign that he had started, “Chang Hong Da Hei” - “Praise Red and Destroy Black”, led to a crackdown on organised crime in the metropolis as it attempted to maintain social order (“destroy black”) while mobilising/educating people with so called “red songs/ books” which praised the revolutionary legacy in China (“praise red”). Another feature of the Chongqing model - “Guo Jin Min Jin” (developing both the state and private sectors) implied a more significant role for the state owned enterprises in the region. Bo's plan included cheap public housing for the poor and substantial support for small businesses.
These campaigns and policies distinguished the Chongqing model from the mainstream one. First, the local mafias and their political allies in the government form an integral part of the current development model. The crackdown on organised crime is in essence the war against the most corrupted political and business elites who remain mostly untouched in other parts of China. It has also helped rebuild people’s confidence in the government. Second, the emphasis on public sector is a subtle rejection of the neoliberal doctrine and the efforts to improve the living conditions of the working class in terms of safety, health and housing also imply a vision for a more sustainable economy. Third, the mass mobilising efforts in the “praise red” campaigns have partly revitalised the CPC’s tradition of mass organizing and could potentially re-politicise the people after a long period of depoliticisation entailed by the reforms.
Yet, one should not overestimate the significance of the Chongqing model. It is not a real model in the sense that it has only been experimented with, for less than five years and is still evolving. The vision of the model is also limited and fails to offer a fundamental change to the social relations of production in the region. Chongqing still embraces multinational corporations and labour sweatshops just like other regions in China do. There is no clear improvement in people’s participation in the local politics despite the mobilisation campaigns of the “Praise Red” nature. The Chongqing model is still far from being a socialist project. Nevertheless it is a serious effort from part of the ruling class to provide an alternative to the current model.
But it seems that most central leaders do not appreciate the Chongqing model. There might be several reasons behind this attitude. First, Bo’s efforts in cracking down on part of the business and political elites potentially threaten their families and allies’ interests. Second, the leadership has agreed on continuing the neoliberal reform and does not tolerate any serious challenge to this line. This is clearly shown in a recent editorial in the People’s Daily calling for further reform and acknowledging the potential oppositions as “trivial critics”. Third, the current Chinese leadership is afraid of anything that involves mass political campaign. Chongqing’s campaigns are not politically against the current model yet but they could become so in the future. Therefore, the Chongqing model, however beneficial it might be, is in violation of the interests of part of the ruling class. The Chongqing event - on the surface a struggle between Bo Xilai and the central leaders - is indeed a struggle between Chongqing model and the mainstream neoliberal model within the ruling class.
The Implications of the Chongqing Event
It should be kept in mind that notwithstanding the removal of Bo Xilai from his leadership in Chongqing, neither his political career or the Chongqing model is in any sense over or done with. The central leaders of the CPC have not yet made the final decision regarding these matters and rumours suggest that there is still uncertainty in the power struggles that are taking place at the uppermost level of the party. However, the Chongqing event has resulted in and will have important impact on the current Chinese politics and on the leftist political current in the country.
In the short term, the Chongqing event is an offensive from the ruling class against the left and the working class. The removal of Bo Xilai sent a clear message to the people that the authority is not tolerant of any alternative to the neoliberal model, however moderate it might be. Although the Chongqing event is a struggle within the ruling class, the war against the Chongqing model is clearly aimed at the Chinese left.
Only several minutes after the official announcement of the removal of Bo on March 15th, all the major Chinese leftist websites and online forums, such as Utopia (wu you zhi xiang), Mao Flag (mao ze dong qi zhi wang) and Red China (hong se zhong guo), were paralysed by network attacks. On April 6th, the central government shut down all the major leftist websites because they “violated the constitution and attacked national leaders”. Even on other websites people could not have discussions on the Chongqing event due to censorship. Clearly these timely attacks and censorship were in order to prevent any discussion and mobilisations among the people.
The atmosphere in Chongqing has also begun to change. The key members of the leadership under Bo were replaced by the central government. The “Praise Red” campaign in Chongqing is now forbidden for being “too noisy”. Chongqing TV is also planning to reduce the frequency of “Praise Red” shows. Rumour goes that the sidelined local mafias are back. Under the pressures from the central government, we can expect to see systematic retrogression in economic and political policies in the near future.
At the same time, the mainstream media in China and the world has embarked upon a demonisation of the Chongqing model by creating various rumours about Bo and his family. The right-wing intellectuals have argued that the Chongqing model is fundamentally flawed and is not sustainable. Ironically, many right wing “dissidents” have also begun to defend the central government’s decision of removing Bo and continuation of the neoliberal path. These rumours also attack the Chinese left, saying that the leftists must have received financial aid from Chongqing and the left should be blamed for the tragedy of Bo Xilai.
Despite the attacks and repressions, the Chongqing event also provides a historical opportunity for the Chinese left. In recent years the Chinese left has been deeply divided in their understanding on how to (re)build socialism in the country. Many people believe that there are genuine socialists within the CPC leadership and it is very likely that they can take power and steer China towards socialism. Therefore they oppose radical politics and always hope for a “left turn” like what transpired with the Chongqing model. Other people disagree and argue that the left should rely on the revolutionary workers and peasants instead of some politicians amongst the communist party. The debate between the two sets of leftists has been fierce but has failed to form a majority view among the left.
However, the Chongqing event has provided a hard lesson to those who believe that socialism can be achieved by ways like the Chongqing model. Conversely, many people who were critical of the Chongqing model have declared their support for Bo Xilai after the Chongqing event to oppose the ruling class’s repression of a genuine alternative to the neoliberal model. This historical contingency offers a potential chance to unite the different factions within the Chinese left and form a united front against the neoliberal reforms and for future socialist projects.
Long term implications
In the long term, the Chongqing event implies more opportunity than challenge to the left, just the opposite of the short term impacts. First and foremost, the short term successes from getting rid of the Chongqing model will become burdens in the long run. The Chinese model is indeed in crisis and the neoliberal prescription is unsustainable and harmful to the Chinese political economy and society. The current problems in China will be even more severe if the Chinese government goes further on the path of privatisation and market liberalisation as suggested in the influential World Bank authored report “China 2030”. There is hope that reaction to this would be in the form of radicalisation of the left and further mobilisation of the working classes.
Secondly, we are starting to see a general trend of changing popular attitudes toward Chinese politics. The Chongqing event has unintentionally re-politicised people who were hitherto not interested in politics previously but now have clear sympathy for the Chongqing model and Bo Xilai. As the crisis of the current model deepens, the sympathy will also be stronger. This change in the popular psyche is subtle but crucial and should further strengthen the left.
Third, the Chongqing event as a lesson is a form of bitter medicine for the incipient Chinese left. Bo Xilai is not the only one among the leadership who want to revise the current model. In future circumstances, it is possible that some faction of the ruling class might offer other reformative models. In such cases, the historical lesson from Chongqing will be invaluable in dispersing any overly ambitious imaginations among the left.
After the recent events, Bo Xilai has gained widespread support among the people and the left. At this point, it is not clear what political role Bo will play in the coming days. If in the future he actually becomes a leader of the leftist camp (which is not unlikely), the potential tension between the Chongqing model and socialism might again split the left. Of course we do not have to worry about it now but this remains a question for the future.