By detailing the extent of disgraced politician Bo Xilai’s abuses, China’s communist leadership has taken a hard stance on corruption, but many commentators in China say they doubt whether the case will lead to fundamental change in China.
Shortly after announcing that Bo Xilai had been expelled from the party and faced criminal prosecution for his crimes, China’s state news agency Xinhua published a commentary titled "Whoever tramples on party discipline and national law will be punished severely."
Bo’s indictment, the article says, is further evidence of the party’s resolution to fight corruption no matter how high ranking the dishonest official is. “The hand does not reach out,” the piece reads quoting Cheng Yi, a famous Mao-era politician, “when it does it needs to be caught.”
Such comments underscore the leadership’s need to distance itself from corruption, which is perceived as endemic by many commentators and threatens to antagonize the Chinese public.
Zhang Ming, a political science professor at People’s University in Beijing, says that cases like Bo Xilai are widespread and common knowledge in China.
“We all know that the problem comes from the system,” he said, “Why nobody stopped him when he was becoming corrupt? Why nobody checked?”
According to the recent investigations, Bo’s crimes date back more than a decade and involve abuses of power perpetrated while he was a well-known politician, climbing up the ladder of the party’s top echelons.
Online, where key words related to Bo’s case are still blocked on some microblog services, the party’s failure to act timely was perceived as unwillingness to seriously tackle the party’s internal abuses, despite public rhetoric to the contrary.
“Bo didn’t just fall out of the sky,” liberal columnist Zhao Chu wrote on his microblog account. “He climbed up to an eminent position step by step, with his wife, family members, and lackeys doing so many bad things for more than 10 years,” he added in a commentary that was reposted by thousands on Weibo, China’s most popular micro blog service.
Zhao pointed at the historical lack of accountability within the party structure as the fertile soil where officials like Bo thrive.
“The basic principles of rule of law and contemporary social norms lack in this kind of long established political culture,” Zhao wrote, “This is a reality that cannot be missed while talking about Bo’s case, and that will not fade overnight just with Bo’s downfall.”
Much of Zhao’s critique focused on the party’s failure to reckon with the Cultural Revolution, a ten-year period of great political turmoil launched by Mao Zedong in the 60s to purge disloyal officials.
Bo Xilai’s father, prominent politician Bo Yibo, was purged during the first phase of that sweeping political campaign. Bo Xilai, 17 years old at the time, grew up to see his father banished from political life and then reinstated after Mao’s death to his former position of vice premier.
Though many public officials persecuted during the Cultural Revolution were reinstated in the following decades, the party’s leadership has been cautious in bluntly criticizing Mao’s campaigns, and during Bo Xilai’s tenure in Chongqing it has tolerated Bo’s revival of Cultural Revolution’s themes.
On Saturday, Wang Xuming, a well known publisher and former spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Education, called Bo’s controversial campaigns against crime and to revive Mao era sentiments in Chongqing a farce, and pointed at the larger effect Bo’s downfall is having on the Chinese political system.
“The prestige and trust of people in the party and in the government is ruined yet again,” he wrote and added a call for deeper political reform to regain people’s trust.
Official reports of Bo Xilai’s long-time corruption come as Beijing is preparing to select the group of leaders that will rule the country in the coming ten years. Among the most likely candidates for powerful seats in the politburo, many are princelings, descendants of elderly party leaders still celebrated in China for their past contribution to the country’s political system.