Michael Dillon / Politics

China’s Going Through Changes

Bo Xilai, village elections and the future of the Chinese Communist Party – as Michael Dillon explores, 2012 is proving to be a critical transition period for China. 

Bo Xilai: Village Elections and the Future of the Chinese Communist Party

The former Chongqing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Secretary Bo Xilai falls spectacularly from grace, but somehow retains his membership of the CCP. His wife, Gu Kailai, is convicted of murdering a British businessman and sentenced to death with a two year reprieve (suspended death sentences are almost always commuted to life imprisonment in China). Bo’s trusted police chief, Wang Lijun, is charged with bribery and attempted defection to the USA, with the trial ending today (The Intermediate Court in the central city of Chengdu did not issue a verdict following the two half-day sessions). The National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is due to meet in October 2012 but the date has still not been announced. Villagers’ demands for democratic elections achieve some success in Wukan after international coverage of popular protest against rural corruption. It is safe to say that in 2012, China is passing through a strange and critical transitional period.


The current administration of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao has been in power for ten years and has promoted the idea of ‘China’s peaceful rise’ and a ‘harmonious society’. It will hand over to a new generation under Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang at the 18th CCP Congress in the autumn of 2012: the new government will be ratified at the National People’s Congress in spring 2013.

What was planned as a smooth and seamless transition has been marred by the fall of Bo Xilai, widely seen as a contender for membership of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee. An unprecedented public dispute with his police chief led to lurid allegations of torture and illegal detentions in a campaign against organised crime, corruption and high living. When his wife was convicted of murdering the British businessman Neil Heywood, Bo’s career appeared to be over.

Bo Xilai is the son of Bo Yibo (1908-2007), one of Deng Xiaoping’s closest aides and an elder statesmen of the Chinese Communist Party (one of the ‘eight immortals’), who held important positions in state economic and financial bodies. Bo Xilai is regarded as a ‘princeling’, a name given to relatives of the senior officials who ran the People’s Republic of China for its first sixty years. Many of Bo’s opponents in the leadership campaign are linked to Hu Jintao and other former senior officials of the Communist Youth League. For these powerful political personalities, the history of their families is of great importance. Many are of the opinion, with very good reason, that members of their families were badly damaged during the political violence of the Cultural Revolution and seek redress, a ‘reversal of verdicts’, for these grievances.

The political conflicts of their predecessors continue to play an important role in the contemporary debate and many in the CCP today are sympathetic to political tendencies that have been long suppressed. Some invoke the reformist tradition of Hu Yaobang, who was ousted as Secretary-General of the Party in 1987, but in Chongqing Bo Xilai decided to revive the ‘red culture’ of the Cultural Revolution period, which would have made Mao Zedong feel at home. This was endorsed in a lukewarm way by the national media and there was another national revival of the ‘spirit of Lei Feng’, remembering the model young communist soldier who died on duty in 1963 and whose legacy is often exhumed as a symbol of national unity and compliance at times of crisis.

Towards the end of 2011 a standoff between villagers and local officials in Wukan, a village on the coast of Guangdong province, attracted international attention. Protests against land seizures and corruption had escalated after the death of a village leader in police custody. Wukan is in a historically interesting part of China; it is part of the rural area surrounding the city of Lufeng which has a history of peasant activism and resistance that dates back to the 1920s. Together with neighbouring Haifeng it was part of the Hailufeng Soviet, a government of farmers that was established in 1927 by Peng Pai, one of the most influential peasant organisers of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This rural soviet was part of the wider movement that in 1949 led to the victory of the CCP and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Concessions were made to end the 2011 conflict, and the village elections in Wukan were freer and more open than any held in China for decades, but the protests are still seen as a potential threat to the authority of the regime.

With a transfer of power looming China’s leaders are in a state of damage-limittion, and now the Wang trial is over it is possible to tackle the trickiest issue: whether Bo should be prosecuted and expelled from the CPP. Whatever the outcome of these developments it is difficult to make sense of China’s present and future without reference to its turbulent and complex modern history. ■

China: A Modern HistoryMichael Dillon is the author of  China: A Modern History (now out in paperback), and founding Director of the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Durham, where he taught modern Chinese history. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society and was Visiting Professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing in 2009. He currently teaches Chinese Studies at Newcastle University.

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