China: Populism and plutocracy
The trial of Bo Xilai reveals contradictions at the top of Chinese society, argues Paul Demarty
The story of Bo Xilai, as has been widely observed, has all the trappings of a grand Hollywood conspiracy thriller. A senior figure in the Chinese Communist Party, a member of its politburo and its secretary for the vast city of Chongqing, Bo has been brought low, expelled from the party amid allegations ranging from bribery to murder.
The very public nature of his downfall has had the effect of opening the lid on the bizarre, hybrid society that is today’s China: a ‘communist’ government simultaneously overseeing vast state enterprises and a cheap labour pool for foreign capital; vast megalopoles such as Chongqing springing up amid rural poverty; Stalinist bureaucrats amassing vast wealth. And so, while Bo’s story bears more than a passing resemblance to State of play, it could only have happened in China.
Bo is the son of Bo Yibo, one of the ‘eight elders’ who formed a kind of collective leadership around Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s - he is, in CCP terms, royalty. A political career was inevitable, and initially had the character to be expected from a man of his extraction - support for the economic liberalisation policies of Deng and his successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. When he was posted to Chongqing, however, his tune partially changed.
Bo’s name became heavily associated with the ‘Chongqing model’ (though now the party leadership is attempting to downplay his role), which was a contradictory phenomenon even by Chinese standards. On the one hand, it involved breakneck-pace economic development, a cut in the corporate tax rate to 15% (the national rate is 25%) and thus the rapid expansion of transnational export-led production. Hewlett Packard, BASF and FoxConn (the latter infamous for the high rate of suicide among their workers) expanded into Chongqing on a large scale. The city now boasts a population of 28 million.
It is the other side of this model that has attracted most attention in Chinese and western coverage of the scandal - an aggressive, assertive populism with heavy Maoist overtones. Bo initiated a heavy-handed crackdown on organised crime; he employed large-scale deficit spending to reverse, or at least stem, the nationwide attacks on China’s formerly famous welfare system - the so-called ‘iron rice bowl’ - with a substantial extension of social housing.
He also initiated various campaigns to encourage ‘red culture’, from mass text messages to the general population featuring aphorisms of the Great Helmsman to the promotion of old revolutionary songs, to Cultural Revolution-style campaigns to get students to spend some time working in the countryside.
Whether this febrile mix actually worked is a hotly contested matter among the different factions of Chinese politics. Chongqing posted very impressive growth statistics during Bo’s tenure - 14.3% in 2008, for instance, as opposed to the national figure of 8%.1 How much of this is down to massive infrastructure projects and how much to industrial production is another matter; Bo certainly was profligate with the public purse, and $34 billion-worth of stimulus funds went to the city that same year.
As any self-respecting party leader would, meanwhile, he made himself and his family very rich indeed. The life so far of his son, Guagua, tells the whole story - educated at Harrow, Balliol College Oxford and finally the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he has also enjoyed $150,000 holidays in Africa, the use of a villa in the south of France and all manner of additional perks denied, it is fair to say, to most young men of his generation, in China or elsewhere. Yet this life story is hardly atypical of the children of top party bureaucrats in China, nor is the grasping nature of the Bo family particularly egregious. The political sensitivity of senior ‘communists’ rolling in such wealth means that farming such riches out to close family members is a common practice.
It is the exact means by which Bo amassed this wealth which are, among other matters, the substance of the trial today. At some point, he and his wife entered into business relations with a British citizen, Neil Heywood; the death of the latter set in motion Bo’s downfall, after the local police chief (and former close ally) brought evidence of his family’s involvement to the American consulate. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, ultimately confessed to and was convicted of Heywood’s death (all the usual caveats concerning ‘confessions’ in Stalinist countries apply here, of course). The latter’s alleged role as a middleman for bribes, and a means for getting Bo’s vast fortune out of the country, are heavily implicated in Bo’s trial.
It is clear that the CCP hierarchy has turned against Bo. His considerable popularity has become tied to a populist-Maoist leftism, which is in any case on the rise among sections of the Chinese intelligentsia. The Chinese ‘new left’, both in its ‘moderate’ and full-blown Maoist forms, is certainly willing to go against the official line. Websites with names like Utopia and Maoflag have been staunch in their support of Bo, however blatant his corruption.
Another oddity in the case is this: the core leadership has allowed the trial to be conducted in a more superficially fair manner - and allowed Bo to defend himself vocally as part of that. On the one hand, it appears that the ruling group does not want to aggravate factional divisions in the party, and thus does not want to be seen to be clamping down too hard on a prominent, popular figure on the party’s left. Bo will still almost certainly be jailed for at least a decade - but he has had the ear of the nation for five days, uniquely among disgraced Stalinist leaders. On the other hand, and despite his fall from grace, it is by no means certain that Bo is no longer a power-broker.
Leon Trotsky’s last political prognoses for Stalin’s Soviet Union are well known and well rehearsed. The bureaucratic ruling caste had succeeded in elevating itself above the Soviet population, but not in eradicating all the gains of October; thus splits would inevitably occur among the bureaucracy on left-right lines, opening up the possibility of political revolution.2
It was a serious, well-argued perspective, but ultimately blown apart by events. When the Stalinist regimes finally entered their terminal crisis, no significant section of the bureaucracy, nor any significant section of the general population, rose to defend and transform state planning or property. After four to seven decades of Stalinist barbarism, everybody wanted capitalism - from the kleptocratic former officials who made off with the economy, to the beleaguered working class.
This is worth bringing up here, inasmuch as something along the lines of Trotsky’s prognosis appears to be germinating in China. The very serious and substantial concessions to capitalist production - the large-scale foreign investment and enormous export market - seem to be producing the kind of political contradictions that Trotsky expected to emerge in the USSR (and his followers expected, too, in the eastern European satellite states).
After all, this massive wave of capitalist accumulation has occurred not so much in spite of, but rather because of, the continued grip on power by the Communist Party, its retention of control over enormous state industrial and financial enterprises. This has allowed the stimulation of production, the attraction of foreign investment through tight political control of the labour force and the trade unions, and so forth. The tapping of vast reserves of labour in the countryside - and the obscene superexploitation of the same people - present a very attractive opportunity for a thriving export market in producer and consumer goods.
It has also been a very obvious economic success story - so much so, in fact, that we constantly read starry-eyed Sinophiles looking forward to a grand New Chinese Century. As the core capitalist countries went into a sharp economic crisis from 2007, China appeared even to be weathering that storm, giving more force to the Sinophiles’ arguments. Even Marxists could be found arguing that Chinese economic power would drag the world from the brink.
In truth, the Chinese ‘miracle’ is the product of a very specific global political-economic situation, and so far has been utterly reliant on booming foreign investment, which produced the funds for the well known mega-infrastructure projects and so on. Things do not look so rosy from here on in. The Chinese economy is wobbling, as global consumer demand falters; more worryingly, the American Federal Reserve has decided to taper off its quantitative easing programme, which will likely have the effect that a hitherto huge outflow of dollars to economies such as China will be attenuated.
It is no wonder, then, that political divisions are starting to open up among the Chinese elite - never mind the population at large. The need for ‘rebalancing’ the economy away from the current model is clear to significant elements of this layer; the ‘Chongqing model’ of Bo Xilai is one option that its architect forced onto the table, but the attendant ideological baggage, never mind the possible emergence of a competitive power bloc around the charismatic Bo, was clearly considered too dangerous for the rather cautious, straight-laced bureaucrats in the CPC’s core leadership.
Taking Bo out of the picture may be enough to stop this political tussle from escalating at this stage. Dark clouds on the economic horizon, however, do not bode well - for the bureaucrats or their obsequious followers abroad.
We may cite, as one particularly pathetic example, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, an organisation which has proven itself, time and again, unable to function without some dubious socialist paradise to fawn before. Now, it is China’s turn - according to CPB general secretary Robert Griffiths, China will inevitably overtake the west; it is in the “primary stage” of constructing socialism; and other such nonsense.3
It is nonsense, above all else, founded on the grand image of China as an unstoppable economic powerhouse; but the notion that it will escape the current crisis is fanciful, to say the least. The bust-up between Bo Xilai and the core CPC leadership is one symptom, among many, of the dangerous contradictions at the heart of Chinese political and economic life - contradictions that will remain entirely obscure to grovelling Stalinist fanboys in the west.
2. See, for example, the section of the 1938 Transitional programme on the USSR: www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/tp-text2.htm.