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The Tailor of…Chongqing? Chinese Political Thriller Fit for Hollywood

The story of Wang Lijun’s supposed asylum request at the American Embassy in Chongqing, the ousting of Bo Xilai in a major denouncement by China’s Premier, the intrigue over the mysterious circumstances of Bo Xilai family friend Neil Haywood’s death and speedy cremation, the rumors of an attempted coup and gunfire being heard in the Chinese capital Beijing. It all sounds a bit like a John le Carré spy thriller. We’ve got Chinese Communists, American Consulates, a failed defection, a questionable death, a leadership power struggle…it is the perfect plot. No wonder there has been such a media firestorm surrounding the affair.

The Wang Lijun story while it was intriguing, as a potential diplomatic catastrophe, really didn’t connect the severity of the incident with the audience. It was a troubling case of a subordinate to Bo Xilai trying to, we can only assume, gain asylum, or to create a layer of security for himself or his family by passing on information to a higher power being that of the Americans.

The Chinese may be careful to save face and thus the Americans now hold some cards as to the real events going on within the Party. While this has been deemed a treacherous activity by the Chinese media it was actually a very clever attempt by Wang. It remains to be seen if he will actually have a lesser fate, but what is clear is that he obviously did this because he felt he had exhausted all other channels available to him. And for unknown reasons, this was the time when he felt that he could no longer continue on the same path.

Most readers of the daily news in the United States, Europe and elsewhere may have some understanding of the politics in China and its one-party system, but the various depth and the specific pathway to leadership is far more opaque and requires more careful study. There are no real elections to be held or for that matter any kind of open campaigning to be done that can really be picked up on the western media. On the whole, the Party is portrayed as a monolithic entity that has deep control over most facets in society.

After Bo Xilai was dismissed from his post as head of Chongqing we see even more clues emerge as to the nature of his departure. Some have argued that it was his personal style of politics that was the cause. If you read China’s premier, Wen Jiabao’s statements carefully, you see that he was speaking out against Bo for raising the rhetoric of the troubled past of the Cultural Revolution that he considers a dark period. Others write of this victory of Bo by Wen as a kind of payback for past deeds during the Tiananmen days that saw Hu Yaobang’s faction facing up against Bo Xilai’s father and other hard-line anti-reformers.

Neil Haywood’s death has shifted the attention of the western media and is seen as a way of captivating audiences to the level of intrigue that allows them to connect with power struggles in the high-stakes game of Chinese politics.

There have been countless ruminations in both the Chinese and foreign media from the fallout of Bo Xilai since he was ousted on March 15 during the “two meetings” or “Lianghui,” the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Many hold that this was really about the differences in leadership style between Bo Xilai, a Princeling touting the Chongqing model and his own kind of fiery politics, not seen since the Cultural Revolution era, and the more practical and pragmatic leadership of figures such as Wen.

The dust has settled somewhat and it is still unclear what fate lies ahead for Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun. Whether the corruption case will be lifted against Bo Xilai or for whatever grounds they may have for his dismissal to justify to the public, from whom his support in Chongqing is still quite strong. It then must be said that politics in China is very much rooted in history. With the rise of the new generation of Princelings, it seems the old rivalries and bitterness of Party infighting have not disappeared but are merely hiding behind China’s new face of glimmering office towers and extravagant conferences. The old face of China’s politics never really left.

The fight over what to do next with reform is taking hold because there is a feeling of stagnation in the reform process. They have yet to tackle rising income inequality, the high levels of corruption, and environmental degradation that have been associated with their steady climb in GDP growth. China’s leadership transition will take place this October; with the top job all but assured to Xi Jinping, but his plan for taking China forward remains unclear. Social stability will remain his top priority, how he will achieve this in the context of the reforms remains to be seen. For now, though, the political thriller that has become the Chongqing saga will continue to unfold as those who were most connected to Bo Xilai will seek to save their own careers.