Continuing the Discussion: Bo Xilai’s Trial: Populism is the Missing Point

Guest Contributor at SAIS Nanjing

There is no doubt that the Bo Xilai trial is the most significant public political event in China that has taken place during the past two decades. Yet despite the huge amount of publicity it generated, the trial itself was still largely manipulated by the government.

Judging from face value, Bo was sentenced to life in prison due to fiscal corruption. However, anyone who pays attention to Chinese politics would realize the missing issue at stake: namely Bo’s populism in Chongqing.

We should not forget what brought Bo down in the first place was an unexpected break in his populist campaign in Chongqing: the escape of Wang Lijun to the American Embassy. There have always been suspicions regarding Bo’s populist appeal inside Chinese liberal circles and with the betrayal of Wang, many dirty secrets behind Bo’s populist policies have surfaced.

Bo’s tough stance on organized crime simply disregarded the rule of the law and procedural justice. His welfare programs created huge public debts and showed huge disrespect for property rights. (Properties of some private businessmen were confiscated under Bo’s rule in Chongqing.)

The “red song campaign” he advocated left the impression that there would be a second cultural revolution if Bo acquired a powerful position in the central government. Bo’s charismatic style also reminded people that he could become a second Mao if he obtained the necessary resources.

Probably due to fears for political stability and legitimacy, the true issue at stake, the dark side of Bo’s populism, is completely missing from the trial. Thus, ordinary Chinese people just do not get the chance to see the real dangers of Bo’s populist ways.

Today if you walk through Chongqing, you may find surprisingly that despite the huge crimes Bo has committed, a majority of the city’s population still support or at least sympathize with him. They probably just view him as a victim of power struggle in China. After all, they cherish some benefits ordinary citizens got under Bo’s rule. They never realize the cost they have paid for those benefits (i.e., the loss of freedom in exchange for security, welfare programs now that will bring huge burden of debts tomorrow, etc.) since none of this has been made public by the central government.

What Bo’s case really proves is that populism, under present circumstances, should never be considered as a cure for social ills in China. In fact, a populist leader can only make the situation worse than the status quo. There may even be a return to the totalitarianism of Mao’s era under his or her rule. What China actually needs are democratic political reforms and more power handed to the people — not an over-reliance on the strong will of a tough man. This, in my view, is what the downfall of Bo should teach every ordinary Chinese citizen. Sadly this valuable and meaningful lesson has been lost in the buzz of the rest of the Bo trial.

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