China may struggle to move beyond Bo Xilai scandal

BEIJING — By expelling renegade Politburo member Bo Xilai from the Communist Party and referring him for prosecution on offenses including bribery and sexual misconduct, China’s leadership took decisive action to conclude a six-month scandal that shook the top echelons of power.

Even though the struggle over Bo’s fate took place largely behind closed doors, the damage is apparent. And it is far from clear that a new generation of leaders to be anointed at a party congress now set to begin Nov. 8 will find it easy to put it behind.

The congress, widely anticipated in October, was apparently pushed back amid discord among party elders over how to deal with Bo, 63, a charismatic figure who had been a top contender for a leadership post. For many Chinese nostalgic about communism as it existed before China’s reform and opening, he remains a hero.

But Friday’s harshly worded announcements in state-run media left little doubt about his fate. Bo “received huge bribes personally and through his family … and maintained improper sexual relationships with a number of women,” the official New China News agency said.

Bo “abused his power and made severe mistakes” covering up for his wife, Gu Kailai, who was convicted of murdering an Englishman, Neil Heywood, in a bizarre poisoning plot, the statement added. Bo’s behavior “badly undermined the reputation of the party and the country, created very negative impact at home and abroad and significantly damaged the cause of the party and people.”

The aggressive move against Bo is not without peril, however. The accusations he faces about abuse of power and keeping mistresses are actions widely thought to be commonplace among officials.

“Airing all this dirty laundry is really risky for the party. They are playing with fire,” said Patrick Chovanec, an economist and political analyst at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. “The more they focus on corruption, mistresses and all this stuff … people might walk away with the message that this behavior is the rule rather than the exception.”

Bo, who was party chief in the city of Chongqing until March, still has many followers within the upper tiers of power and among ordinary people. Thanks to his Cultural Revolution-style crackdown on crime and efforts to revive revolutionary singing and dancing, many admirers regard him as the latter-day incarnation of Mao Tse-tung.

The son of one of Mao’s closest comrades, Bo was widely seen as a rival to Xi Jinping, the reform-minded vice president who is to be named at next month’s congress to succeed Hu Jintao and become China’s president for the next decade. If Bo and his allies were promoted into the leadership, it could sharply limit Xi’s room to maneuver.

William Kirby, director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, said he expected Bo to be quickly tried and convicted before the party congress. But the matter may not fade as fast as authorities would like.

“For the party, I think the Bo case shows so many things that are wrong with the political system — that it’s still to a large degree in hands of founding families, that regional power matters enormously, that the military is the heart of this regime, that the judiciary and police are at whim of party. And that monetary corruption suffuses the system,” he said. “The Bo case is like peeling back an onion, exposing fundamental flaws.”

The decision was announced Friday, the eve of a weeklong public holiday, after a meeting of the Politburo’s Standing Committee, the country’s top governing body.

The date for the 18th Communist Party Congress should have been announced earlier, given that security preparations are nearly complete. Some conventions scheduled for October were canceled, along with a Beijing marathon planned for Oct. 14. Giant floral arrangements were installed this month in anticipation of the congress.

“The scheduling of the congress has been postponed for a long time because of the internal conflicts in the party,” said Jin Zhong, a magazine editor and veteran political analyst working out of Hong Kong, adding that how to deal with Bo was the main holdup.

Bo had been widely expected to face charges of obstructing justice in the murder case of his wife. Wang Lijun, the former police chief of Chongqing, testified in his own recent trial that Bo slapped him in the face when told his wife was suspected of murder and ordered the evidence destroyed.

But Friday’s announcement suggests Chinese prosecutors will go much farther, targeting Bo for alleged crimes dating back to the 1990s when he was mayor of the port city of Dalian.

“It reminds me of many earlier purges in the party. When leaders fall, they tend to fall all the way. Especially those that are vying for top leadership positions,” said Kirby. “Mr. Bo, who reveled in reviving part of the past political culture of China, seems to have been caught by another part of it.”

Bo was romantically linked with a number of film and television personalities, although it is unclear what laws might have been broken. Both he and his wife, a prominent lawyer, are also believed to have gotten rich accepting gifts and favors from real estate developers.

Chinese authorities are also investigating Xu Ming, a prominent Dalian tycoon, who paid for expensive trips for the family to Europe, and some of the expenses of their son, who was studying at the prestigious Harrow school in London.

Some analysts believe the Bo case has much less resonance among average Chinese than it does among urban elites and foreign observers, and its ultimate effect may be limited.

“I have the strong impression that the average Chinese person is much more concerned with corruption in their own village … phony taxes, nonsensical fees and the co-opting of peasant land,” said Robert Weatherley, a China specialist at the University of Cambridge. “The average person is much more concerned about corruption you see every day than Bo Xilai.”

But others say the incoming leadership, including Xi and Li Keqiang, who’s expected to replace Wen Jiabao as premier, could be shaped by the extensive scandal.

“The lessons they learn from this are entirely up to them,” said Kirby. “If the lesson they learn is that the system has serious problems, and if it leads them to the conclusion that there must be change, then they would have the ammunition from this case to make changes. We shall have to see.”