Interview: What really happened to Bo Xilai | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 16.04.2012

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Interview: What really happened to Bo Xilai

Andrew James Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University, says Bo Xilai's real crime was to bring the power struggle raging in Chinese politics out into the open.

Andrew James Nathan is a professor of political science at Columbia University, New York.

Deutsche Welle: Two months ago we had the spectacular escape of Chongqing's former police chief Wang Lijun to the US consulate in Chengdu. One month ago we had the sacking of Bo Xilai as party secretary of Chongqing. Now finally Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, has been charged with murder. Was all the talk about a power struggle and even a coup just empty speculation? Is what we are dealing with just an ordinary crime involving the highest echelons of power?

Andrew James Nathan: Well, I think the talk of the coup was probably empty talk as far as we can see now. But the power struggle was real and I think lay behind the events that you just described. Because Bo Xilai had for a long time broken with the tradition of maintaining unity in the party and keeping political struggles behind the scenes. He had openly developed his own kind of brand name of administration of Chongqing. And I think that was why a corruption investigation was opened up by the central party authorities to look into him. And that corruption investigation seems to have been the force that broke the bond between Bo Xilai and his police chief and caused the police chief to flee and opened up this whole disaster for the Bo family.

Part of the brand name of Bo Xilai was his heavy-handed anti-mafia campaign in Chongqing. That campaign in itself seems to have been conducted in a way that ignored even the most basic standards of the law. You had the chance to go through documents smuggled out of China by a Chinese businessman who claims to have been the victim of persecution and intimidation and, in effect: blackmail. In this light: How credible is the accusation of Chongqing's former police chief Wang Lijun that Bo Xilai was the biggest mafia boss of them all in Chongqing?

Wang Lijun

Wang Lijun caused an uproar when he fled to a US consulate

I think it is very credible because most of the senior party officials in China have some corruption in their background. I can't say they all do. But I think most of them do. It's really normal. And Bo Xilai - it's very possible and very probable, that he was worse than the average. Because there really isn't the rule of law in China and so just to run a big city you would have to be what we in the West would consider a kind of mafia boss. About the documents that I went through: I authenticated these documents as documents for the journalists who wrote stories about them. But I really was not able to authenticate the underlying case. I did not meet the businessman so I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of those charges but neither have I independently investigated the charges that this businessman made.

You are engaged in long-term research when it comes to political legitimacy in Asia. Now, in light of what you just said, Bo Xilai was probably very corrupt and now that the Wang Lijun und Gu Kailai cases have all come out into the open, what does this affair do to the legitimacy of the rule of the Communist Party in China?

I think that the legitimacy of the Communist Party in China is kind of shaky, precisely because it is an authoritarian regime, where it tries to keep all of the politics behind the scenes. And so everybody who is halfway smart in China understands that there is a lot of corruption and power struggles and that the regime is not accountable to the people and that there is no rule of law. All of those things are common knowledge. But I think the population has accepted the regime so long as the economy is growing and so long as the regime shows its own grip on power to be firm. So this is terribly embarrassing for the government. And maybe the most embarrassing thing is that Wang Lijun fled to the American consulate. He went to a foreign entity because there is no way, no institution inside China that a person can go to - the media, the courts, the police - none are safe. So it's an embarrassment. But it does not present an immediate risk to the party yet. The party leadership can now pull together and simply get rid of Bo and his wife and nothing else happens. The real risk is: If it sparks ongoing factional conflict and the regime shows itself to be profoundly divided. And in that case I think the population will see that the regime is weakening. And that's when you get a crisis of the same kind that you got in 1989.

In the last couple of days we have seen lots of calls for unity, which seems to indicate that unity within the party is in short supply. How is this going to affect the planned leadership transition in autumn?

My guess is that the leadership will pull together. First of all, because it is so risky if they continue to battle among themselves. And precisely fractioning party unity is the crime of Bo Xilai. His real crime is not corruption, because that's normal, as we all know, and certainly not violating people's legal rights because that's normal, too. His real crime, politically speaking, is to have brought the power struggle out in front of the public because that is so dangerous for the regime. So I think the remaining in the leadership, no matter what their opinions are about how this case was handled, that they nonetheless will shut up and pull together. Also because the way that this episode unfolded, the extreme embarrassment of Wang Lijun going into the American consulate and the involvement of a foreign murder victim - those kinds of things make it difficult for anyone to speak up for Bo Xilai anymore. The case against him is so overwhelming. So my guess is that the succession will now proceed in every other respect as planned. But there is a problem - the position of the chief of the security apparatus was the one that Bo Xilai was most likely to have been given in the succession. And now that post is open. And it's an important one for the power structure. So there has to be a behind-the-scenes struggle about who is going to receive that post.

Andrew J. Nathan

Andrew James Nathan says Bo's crime was airing China's dirty laundry in public

Within this seeming attempt to show unity, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has been increasingly speaking of reform - even calling for the breakup of the monopoly of state-owned banks. What does he really stand for? Is he serious in his reform drive? Does he want to leave behind a legacy?

I think, Wen Jiabao does stand for reform. I think when he speaks about political reform and democracy he does not have in mind what we have in mind by democracy. I think he has in mind a variety of milder reforms than we might like - inner party democracy, kinds of reform that would keep the Chinese Communist Party with the monopoly of power. But I think he does really want to carry out reform. And actually, his administration - the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao administration - has carried quite a few especially economic reforms over the course of it's ten years in office. And I think that's the direction. But the ones that he is talking about now are big, difficult ones that he certainly can't, doesn't have time to carry forward himself. And I think as he going out of office he is kind of leaving a legacy, putting down a marker, hoping that his successors will continue in that direction.

What does this whole process reveal about the political culture of the world's second largest economy and coming world power?

The political culture in the leadership in the Chinese Communist Party is extremely traditional if you will - very close, very elite. It is a small gang of power holders who don't trust the public - that kind of thing. The political culture of the country at large is, I think, changing very rapidly. The Chinese political culture is quite cosmopolitan, open to the world. Questioning, independent and rather moderate. So I think we see a kind of divergence between the public culture and the party culture displayed in this incident.

Interview: Matthias von Hein
Editor: Sarah Berning

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