For much of 2012, the year of China's political earthquake, I waited to read Harper's analysis of the Bo Xilai saga, but never got the chance. As a long-time subscriber, I'm glad to see a report this year, even if it's a bit late. In her informative article "The Unraveling of Bo Xilai – China loses a populist star," Lauren Hilgers provides balanced coverage of the divided public opinions on Bo, and convincingly shows how information unavailability helped to veil the fact that a Chinese politician who once appeared to be the most accessible "had been no more candid than any other Party secretary."
I completely agree with Hilgers that officialdom opacity is a big problem in China and, as I've discussed before, different social classes have different level of access to information. But her article sparked more thoughts. Suppose all the social classes received the same amount of information about Bo Xilai, would their positions toward him converge? I doubt it.
Chongqing, where Bo Xilai last ruled, is my hometown and I visit it often. There has been a heavy divide between the locals even when confronted with the same promulgated information. Intellectuals I spoke to disliked Bo's behavior and policies long before his downfall; this is consistent with Hilgers' report. Many low-income, less-educated people, on the other hand, continue to advocate Bo even after his dark side has been exposed and the initial stage of disbelief has passed. What's interesting – and also alarming – is the latter's reasoning. So what if Bo was corrupt? They say, Which official in China is not? But the others are corrupt AND incompetent, while Bo was capable of getting something done. So what if Bo's "Chongqing model" was causing local government bankruptcy? Certainly it is a lot better to spend the money on local construction than let it fall into the pockets of corrupt officials. And, so what if Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun carried out cruel torture, unjust executions, and massive imprisonments of private businessmen and political dissenters during their "anti-mafia" campaign? Since ancient times, "killing the rich to benefit the poor" has been justified.
So, the most urgent and fundamental problem as seen by the two groups of people is different. To those with low-income, it is the wealth gap. To liberal intellectuals, it is the rule of law. Both are legitimate concerns, and both should be addressed. Bo, however, for his own self-serving agenda chose to play the game of favoring one and trampling the other. While it is clear that he placed himself above the law during his rule in Chongqing, there is no evidence that his populist policies (the so-called "Chongqing model") actually reduced the wealth gap; further, the face engineering that pleased his supporters is unsustainable, as it was implemented with heavy borrowing that has put Chongqing's finances into dire straits. In fact, what the current division in public opinion reflects is that the Bo incident has become an anchor from which both sides can vent their discontent.
Hilgers also touches on a very interesting phenomenon: "[T]here were two groups who disliked Bo Xilai: Party leaders and liberal intellectuals." I wish the author had explored this coincidence a bit further. When groups we think of as critical of Chinese authority find themselves on the same side of some issue, this is worth analyzing and understanding. But I realize it is also beyond the scope of Hilgers’ article.