Unusually Public Scandal Plays Out In China

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Rob Gifford, China editor, The Economist

Bo Xilai, a Communist Party chief from Chongqing, was replaced by deputy prime minister Zhang Dejiang. A report released online details why he was pushed out. The scandal could the transition of power this fall when the executive committee of the Chinese Communist Party names seven new members.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Bo Xilai, once a rising star of the Chinese Communist Party, learned one of the oldest lessons in politics last week: Beware the Ides of March. The provincial party chief and politburo not only lost his job, he was publicly rebuked by the party leadership.

The purge comes at the start of what was supposed to be a smooth transition of power to a new generation in Beijing and exposed rivalries and splits within the leadership. Rob Gifford, who used to be our man in Beijing, just returned from covering these extraordinary events in his new role as China editor for The Economist. We'll get an update on politics and go on to ask him about China's policy on its periphery, North Korea, the South China Sea and its border with India, and about policy further abroad.

If you have questions about China's foreign policy, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, actor Wendell Pierce on why a city known for great food needs a good grocery store. But first, Rob Gifford joins us from BBC studios in Oxford, and Rob, nice to have you back on the program.

ROB GIFFORD: It's good to be back, Neal.

CONAN: And how big a deal is the Bo scandal?

GIFFORD: Well, it is a big deal for several reasons. I think especially because since 1989, since the suppression of the pro-democracy movement in June, 1989, what we've had in Beijing as the economy has expanded to become the second-largest in the world, as the China story has expanded to become one of the biggest stories in the world, is you've had political unity, apparently, at the center, or at least when you didn't, and you had some minor differences or even major differences, nobody knew about them.

And so this brings to mind, to many people, what happened in those fateful days, what happened in the middle of 1989 when there was a split in the standing committee of the Politburo, and that was, we all say the bloody denouement that happened in Tiananmen Square, as Zhao Ziyang was purged.

The circumstances here are very different, but they are very crucial because they say a lot about where China is. It's had these 23 incredible years of growth - 30 years of growth - more than that since Deng Xiaoping started it all in the late '70s. And now, we're starting to see these new visions of how China should go forward, these power struggles, the loss of unanimity at the center coming to the fore.

And that is bound to affect what happens in China in the coming decade.

CONAN: And how do we define this split? Bo was known as a retro-Maoist, if you will.

GIFFORD: He was. It's a very strange story, and it's very complex also because of who Bo Xilai was and is; the son of one of the Long March veterans, one of the old revolutionaries, really. So he got a lot of protection on his way up the ladder to the top.

I think crucial here, though, is that actually when he was moved to Chongqing, in many ways it was a lateral move, and I think in spite of what I've just said that it shows that there are splits at the top, I wonder if actually a lot of this, what has gone in Chongqing in the last five years, has not necessarily been a split between the people who want more kind of Maoism or back to Maoism, although there are plenty of people who feel that, I think Bo Xilai has been very opportunistic and quite populist in grabbing hold of those people who want that, who are annoyed and angry that they've been left out of the reforms. And he's used that theme, in fact, to bolster himself. So, there's a lot of ego, a lot of individualism going on here as he has pushed for a place on the top nine, the standing committee of the Politburo.

So, I think there's an element of power struggle, there's an element of individualism and ego, and actually, Bo Xilai, very interestingly, he's really about the only politician in China who has anything that you could call a Western politician's sort of (unintelligible) and savvy and press the flesh, get out and shake hands.

And he's very urbane. I've met him. I've interviewed him in Beijing when he was commerce secretary. He's almost like a Western politician, and all the other gray guys in the Politburo, who most of us would have trouble even naming, it's very - it's a very, very different sort of approach to politics.

But here's the crucial thing, Neal: Chinese culture, which has not changed so much under Maoism from what it was in Confucianism, that is not the way politics is done in China. As the United States goes into its campaign, and everyone wants to make a name for themselves and vote for me, me, me, it's all about me, how can I show you about me, China is the exact opposite in terms of its political culture.

And the person who stands up and tries to say, hey, this is all about me is often slapped down, and that's not just a Maoist-Communist thing, that's a traditional Confucian thing as well.

CONAN: There is also another issue. As you mentioned, he is the son of a revolutionary hero, a man who was on the Long March with Mao, and part of a group known as the Princelings, I gather, yet he was replaced on the 25-man Politburo by another Princeling.

GIFFORD: That's right, and what you have now, or at least the person who is replacing him in Chongqing, is also the son of one of that generation. And so many people are now complaining about this, partly of course, because originally the Communist Party rose up to oppose this sort of dynastic politics and the father-to-son power and the landlords and the established hierarchy of power of the old China, as it was called.

Now what you've got is another institutionalization of family politics, if you like. I'm not sure we in the West, looking at the last few presidents of the United States, perhaps, over the last 20 years or indeed in other Western European countries where, of course, there are political dynasties as well. We can necessarily point the finger too much on that one. But what's clear is that these families are very, very important in China now, and the - it taps into a whole social feeling about the lack of social mobility.

For some time after Mao died, there was a degree of social mobility, and people could move in, and people could move up. There is a slight feeling, not just politically now, but socially, that the haves are getting more, and the have-nots are getting less, and they're being locked out of this. So it feeds into some of this social anger, as well.

CONAN: We wanted - we did talk with you last month before your trip to Beijing about the internal Chinese politics, and we wanted to focus with you today more on China's foreign policy, both immediate neighbors and further afield, 800-989-8255, if you've got questions about that. Email talk@npr.org. But Rob Gifford, I do have to ask whether this Bo affair, allegedly, now there's a document being circulated from the Central Committee that says the issue behind all of this was corruption by Bo's family.

An official in Chongqing wanted to investigate. He fled in fear for his life when Bo objected to that, and - but is this a senior Chinese official being held accountable for corruption, or is this people settling scores, is this people using this issue as they might use any other issue?

GIFFORD: It's very much the latter, I think, and I think we should see most of this as largely an attempt to bring down Bo Xilai for the reasons I've said, because he was getting a little bit too big for his Princeling boots, and he needed to be brought down a notch. And a lot of people objected to his very populist, very Western-style politicking, even though some of his policies were not particularly Western style. He was reinforcing the power of the state and enterprises and Chongqing and going back to singing Maoist songs. So not politically, not particularly Western politics but Western politicking in terms of style.

And so, I think basically a lot of people wanted to bring him down and not allow him to get into the Standing Committee, and that's really largely what this has been about. And as I say, it's raised these other fascinating issues because the interesting thing about Bo Xilai is that even though he used his power to, you know, carry out, by most accounts, some pretty shocking purges of anyone who stood up against him and to take down business rivals and, you know, real mafia-style stuff, he was actually, and is actually, very popular among ordinary people.

So that's another weird kind of sort of current that is playing into all this. There are lots of people who feel that life is now unfair in China, and Bo Xilai tapped into that, and he said don't worry, we'll go back to the days when everyone was poor, but they were equal. And, you know, he chose to gloss over, of course, the horror of the Cultural Revolution.

But he tapped into an anger that is there on the streets in a lot of cities in China, not just in Chongqing. I've been in lots of cities in China where people, taxi drivers, you know, the proverbial taxi driver saying: You know what? That Bo Xilai, he, at least he cares about the people, and he's trying to crack down on corruption.

But, of course anyone who's an official in China is corrupt. So the cover of accusations of corruption against Bo Xilai was relatively easy to make because you can always find something because, as every Chinese person will tell you, there are no clean officials left in China.

CONAN: And interestingly, just a few seconds before we go to a break, but among the accusations made indirectly at him was that these retro-Maoist policies risked a revival of the Cultural Revolution. That's pretty serious stuff.

GIFFORD: It is, and when those sort of accusations start getting thrown around, as they were, as you say, by Wen Jiabao, the current prime minister, you know, that raised a lot of eyebrows. And I think part of that was just the sort of tarring, of trying to say hey, don't go there with Bo Xilai, he's dangerous, and this is why we're doing this.

CONAN: And is he done? Is his career over?

GIFFORD: Well, I think it is within the Communist Party. The question is if it goes any further. Two very senior Politburo members who have been purged in the last 20 years have been put in jail. The question is whether that will happen to him. My own sense, probably not, but you never know.

CONAN: Rob Gifford, China's foreign policy next. If you have questions about it, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Rob Gifford, now China editor for The Economist. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

GIFFORD: ...certainly, this is part of China's great dilemma. It is now - very, very rapidly, it's become a major importer of oil from Iran and from other places, and how can it secure the oil that it needs in order to keep the economy growing at the level that it needs to grow? It is a huge dilemma for China. It's why it's building these alliances with people. It doesn't mind Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, across Africa - Angola, Mozambique - plenty of places.

CONAN: Sudan, yeah.

GIFFORD: It doesn't mind where it gets if from. Sudan, exactly. And that affects its policy. That affects what it does and doesn't do on the U.N. Security Council. And in fact, these issues, I think, oil and indeed, water - there's a water emergency in northern China. Absolutely. There's no water in China. These resource issues, many of them are going to be the things that really, really could push China forward and spark, if not conflicts, confrontations that are going to be very dangerous.

It may well not be something to do with the military, although who knows? In the South China Sea, there's plenty of scope for misunderstanding. It could well be these resource issues of China needing to secure these resources it needs that lead to some of the dangerous confrontations of the next decade.

CONAN: Just to follow up to Bill's question, this from Ron in Alexandria, Virginia. Rob, thanks for all of your great coverage on China over the years on NPR. What is China's motivation for political support of Iran in the U.N. - oil, sovereignty, to subtly agitate the USA in the international stage or all of the above?

GIFFORD: Yes, all of the above, I think. You know, it's always good to needle the Americans to some extent. Part of it is, of course, this lingering nonintervention policy that it feels strongly about it. It's not just a cover. China has suffered greatly from the intervention of our countries over the years, speaking to you from England. It's of deep historical thing for China that it, you know, it doesn't want to do what it has seen other countries do. But a lot of it is just very, very pragmatic.

And that's something we see about China and that we say about China over and over again, that people talk about Communist China as though there's some kind of ideology governing China in a communist sense. Of course, it is still a Leninist state that brooks no opposition whatsoever. You will be crushed if you oppose it. But within that, it is a remarkably unideological state in terms of communist rhetoric, in terms of communist policies. And it's very, very pragmatic in terms of getting what it needs, getting what it wants in order to push the economy forward.

CONAN: Rob Gifford, now China editor for The Economist. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go next to Julia. Julia with us from Hillsboro in Oregon.


CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JULIA: Hi. I'm just wondering the commentator right here to see what is he - his view for China's South Sea complication with the surrounding countries, and was the policy effective or not?

CONAN: Oh, this is the dispute over the South China Sea, access to which there's believed to be large deposits of oil underneath it, which exacerbates it, but, of course, parts of it are also claimed by, what? The Philippines, Borneo, Indonesia, Taiwan and Vietnam, as well.

GIFFORD: That's right. Yes. And this is - I mean, in some ways, it touches on what we've just been talking about - the need for resources. That is one of the reasons why China is so belligerent about its ownership of the South China Sea or the sovereignty, that it comes under the sovereignty of China. Very interesting, just in the last couple of weeks - and in fact you can read about it in this week's issue of The Economist out...

CONAN: There's a plug.

GIFFORD: ...out on Friday, if I may - that China in the last couple of weeks very interestingly has made some suggestions that have appeared a little bit more conciliatory. And, you know, it's a bit like old-style Kremlinology. You know, you go through the verbs that they use and they - these seemed to be slightly softer verbs than what they used previously. And there's a little bit of that about it. But China is walking a very difficult line between insisting on what it sees its sovereign rights and indeed places where it can get hold of cheap hydrocarbons, of getting fuel that it needs for its growth, but also not annoying all of its neighbors so much that they go running to the umbrella of the United States, which is basically what's happened over the last couple of years.

And the whole pivot, so-called pivot, of President Obama back bringing the U.S. military, reinforcing U.S. military presence in Asia announced in Bali last November is a result of China pushing it too far in the last two years and pushing its luck and saying things in a little bit too much of a belligerent way. And so, it is realizing the very difficult task it has in dealing with the South China Sea. And certainly, it is a potential flashpoint. So I think a lot of people are looking at these recent comments and saying, well, any progress is good, anymore slightly more soft line from Beijing on how it will deal with this is good.

CONAN: We hear about its belligerent attitude sometimes towards the South China Sea and other parts of its border areas. We hear about the growth of the Chinese military, which it certainly has grown. Nevertheless, is it not also important to remember the people's army has not - the People's Liberation Army has not fired a shot in anger in quite some time?

GIFFORD: That's true. That's very true. And that plays in - I think, it was the war with Vietnam in 1979 - unless I'm very much mistaken - externally, internationally. Of course, the PLA tragically, brutally were involved in the suppression internally of the Tiananmen demonstrations. But in terms of fighting with other countries, that's true. I mean, I think they, in some ways, they worry about it - oh, dear, another shameless plug, Neal.


GIFFORD: In the next coming weeks, we've got a big issue about the Chinese military coming up and analyzing it. And within that report, the - with an interview with a general in Beijing, saying, well, yes, we haven't had much practice lately, but we don't believe that that you should actually invade other countries in order to get that practice. So - and, you know, often, a slight dig at America, that's what it's all about, getting the point across that they want to rise peacefully. But who knows if they can. It's just such a - it's such an unknown, and there are so many variables about China's rise at present.

CONAN: Rob Gifford, as always, thanks very much for your time. And we'll certainly rush out to our newsstand and buy the next issue of The Economist.

GIFFORD: Oh, thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Rob Gifford, China editor for that magazine. Coming up, actor Wendell Pierce, Bunk on HBO's "The Wire," now a grocer. We'll explain. It's the TALK OF THE NATION.

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