Zhang Wen: “Bo Xilai and Mao Zedong”

The following is a translation of this post by Zhang Wen. It is a discussion and analysis of Bo Xilai, the current CPC Chongqing Committee Secretary and widely considered one of the most remarkable up-and-comers in the CPC leadership. He’s also a pretty controversial figure, and while he’s popular with the people in places where he’s governed, he has been spurned several times in attempts to climb the political ladder quickly.

In the post, Zhang Wen gives us a good overview of Bo’s political history, and notices some similarities between him and a young Mao Zedong. Many people expect Bo to be moved to a high-level central government position in 2012 at the CPC National Congress, so if you don’t know anything about him, now might be a good time to get on the Bo Xilai bandwagon.

Note: throughout the translation, I have rendered various references to Bo’s 打黑 campaigns as “anti-corruption” campaigns, which isn’t wholly accurate. The campaigns have focused on Chongqing’s criminal underbelly, which is rife with corrupt officials and organized crime, but that’s a bit wordy, so I’ve used “anti-corruption” as a stand-in to refer to the 打黑 campaigns generally.


I am not at all suprised that Bo Xilai was chosen as a candidate for TIME Magazine‘s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. What would be even less surprising is that if he were chosen right now, he would definitely be China’s number one person on the list.

TIME‘s comment was that because of his anti-corruption campaign in Chongqing, he is China’s “most welcomed, most popular official.” This is such high praise that even “Grandpa” Wen Jiabao [China’s premier] can’t compete.

In truth, I’m neutral on Bo Xilai’s work these past few years in Chongqing, I have very complicated emotions when watching this drama play out. Bo Xilai and the “northeast tiger” Wang Lijun entered Chongqing and started a war and began a “battling corruption and evil” movement that has gradually begun to spread nationwide and worldwide. This action is in line with the people’s wishes, and at the same time, also in line with what central authorities wish.

At first, the public opinion was very one-sided; no one could find any fault with Bo. The controversy and difference of opinions came with the case of Li Zhuang. Proponents of the democratic rule of law questioned and criticized the legality of Chongqing [court] proceedings, but Bo Xilai’s supporters hold that punishing lawyers who defend “bad people” is appropriate.

Bo Xilai’s wife Gu Kailai is a high-level lawyer who has been working for many years. The two have been together for many years and Bo himself was once the head of the Ministry of Commerce, and thus often negotiated international legal issues with foreign opponents. Because of this, Bo Xilai should have a solid conception and knowledge of the law.

But in the end, in the Li Zhuang case, the organs of justice in Chongqing left a bad impression that they might violate legal procedures. Precisely because of this, some people’s opinions on Bo Xilai changed dramatically. I myself once wrote an essay expressing pity that Bo Xilai hadn’t turned out to be the sort of high-quality modern politician [we had hoped].

Putting it all together and thinking about it, as far as Bo Xilai is concerned I think my pity may have been pedantic. The Li Zhuang case is just one piece on his chessboard there, and even though he moved it wrong, it doesn’t really matter. Compared to some of the other setbacks he’s faced, it means nothing.

Though not having been able to move from provincial governor [of Liaoning] to [a central government leadership position] was a disappointment, moving from Liaoning to Beijing to become Minister of Commerce may have been some consolation for Bo. But not being able to take Wu Yi’s spot as Vice Premier was a great blow. That year, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang were already members of the [CPC] standing committee, and Wang Qishan was about to move from mayor of Beijing to the vice-premiership, but the 58-year-old Bo had to leave the political center [in Beijing] and head to the remote southwest. How could he endure such a precipitous drop in status?

When he left Beijing in 2008, the weather was still cold, and by the time his anti-corruption campaign was beginning in Chongqing in July of that year, the summer heat was already hard to bear. In half a year’s time, Bo Xilai had been “through the ice and the flames”, and he didn’t want to be forgotten or marginalized. He wanted to do still bigger and better things.

Bo Xilai
In economic matters, how could Chongqing compete with Guangdong? Bo could only focus on social issues. Visiting the poor, no matter how well he did it, could only make local waves; he couldn’t compete with the influence of Premier Wen Jiabao’s nationwide travels. Social security and medicine, etc. were also out, they couldn’t be dealt with in a short time frame. He could only follow the people’s wishes and attack corruption, using extreme methods to rock the entire nation. There was no political risk, but the move did have an influence on politics. Bo Xilai had made his move!

Bo Xilai doesn’t need news training from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; he understands spin and is continuously manufacturing hot topics to attract media and public attention. Patriotically attacking corruption and evil, the legitimacy of the CPC in Chongqing rose, and Bo Xilai as “the hope of the people” also rose sharply in conjunction. With this battle, he had moved out of the corner and back onto center stage, with all eyes once again fixed on him.

Following the people’s wishes and the “benevolent way of governing”, holding the popular will and using high-handed measures — these are the ways politicians have ruled in China throughout history. How could something as trivial as Li Zhuang change things?

The outcome of the anti-corruption campaign was brilliant, worthy of literary praise. That was why Chairman Tie Ning allowed 250 famous writers to come to Chongqing to have a meeting. With the writers there, Secretary Bo Xilai took the opportunity to speak:

“In thirty years of ‘reforms and opening up’ there have been many improvements in people’s lives. Today’s youth don’t lack food or clothing, and in the same way they now need more nourishment for their minds. Writers are undertaking an important mission, and for this age you must create deeper and more moving works to foster the next generation. Only then will there be hope for our people.”

This scene makes me think of Mao Zedong’s talks on art and literature in Yan’an 68 years ago (May 1942). In that profoundly influential meeting, Mao emphasized that the place of literary work within the work of making revolution was definite and set, and was one of the responsibilities required [of Party members] by the Party during times of revolution.

Sixty-eight years later, Bo Xilai also gave Chongqing writers five ((the original text says five, but then Zhang Wen lists more than five tasks; this may be a typo on Zhang Wen’s part as it seems likely that Bo Xilai can count.)) tasks: compile a hundred reflections on the “Five Chongqings” ((A propaganda motto: Cheap-housing Chongqing, Healthy Chongqing, Not-crowded Chongqing, Safe Chongqing, and Forest [Natural] Chongqing)), carry on in writing moving socialist stories, invite writers from all over to Chongqing to experience life there, write 100 poems that can be spread far and wide, cooperate with the Chinese Writer’s association to create a Chongqing Spring Festival Gala, ask big names in literature to come to Chongqing high schools and middle schools to serve as adjunct professors, ask writers to use Chongqing as a background for their novels, and respond in a lively way to the lives and creations of Chongqing people.

Singing “red songs” [being patriotic], attacking the forces of darkness, giving writers assigned responsibilities; all of this makes me a think of a line of thread extending from Mao Zedong and ending with Bo Xilai. In modern Chinese politics, there’s definitely no one else who has adopted Mao’s skills as well as Bo.

What isn’t like Mao is that there hasn’t been the negative side [that Mao had with] three years of natural disasters [i.e., the Great Leap Forward], an Anti-Rightist Campaign, a Cultural Revolution. What Bo has done has mostly been evaluated positively.

This year during the NPC and CPCC meetings, a “free” Taiwanese media outlet asked Bo Xilai, ‘do you fear that your own accomplishments make you a threat to your bosses?’ Bo just fudged an answer. In my opinion, because he’s a lower level political bureau committee member, he is no threat to the central core of leaders [right now], but two years from now, who knows.

Many people feel he’s already accrued enough savings of political capitial to compete for dominance in political circles two years from now [at the 18th National Congress of the CPC], and that his entrance into the ranks of senior leadership is assured. Even more worth paying attention to, inside the central government whose supreme authority is declining, popular support can give less favored people in the government the voice needed to achieve a higher position and more power.

In my observation of the Chongqing anti-corruption campaign, this is what I’m most interested in: No matter how you put it, if a leader anywhere goes along with the people’s wishes and breaks through the outmoded conventions of officials, doesn’t just toe the line and rather boldly pursues reform, he will turn himself into a national and perhaps even international “political star”. And it’s worth affirming that this [him doing this] is a bit like some political personalities in democratic countries. Imagine, if there were thirty places in China with officials like Bo, the whole country would become a field of political competition, one-upmanship, and and copying [of successful strategies]. Perhaps it would even quicken China’s progression towards democracy!

In all fairness, whether you like Bo Xilai or not, if one can act as he has in China’s current political climate, that’s pretty good. What I regret the most about Bo Xilai’s work in Chongqing is that as he increasingly makes people feel he’s renewing Mao’s traditions, it means he hasn’t emerged as a [true] modern political figure. Whether he ever does is yet to be decided by history.

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0 thoughts on “Zhang Wen: “Bo Xilai and Mao Zedong””

  1. Nice post.

    A small request: when you introduce key figures in the translations, could you also include their Chinese names in characters in parentheses? I’m pretty sure that’s how Danwei normally does it too. I really like being able to quickly read these translations without going to the original post, but I always wonder what the key figures’ names’ Chinese characters are (and how to pronounce their names, tones and all).



  2. Hey John, you’ll find if you hold your mouse over any paragraph of translation, you can read all of the original text — no need to open the original post. I’m not sure how to make it display pinyin, though.


  3. This is an interesting article that compares Bo and Mao.

    However, there are actually exactly five things that Bo asked the writers to do and they are separated by semicolons not commas in the original Chinese text:

    1. compile a hundred reflections on the “Five Chongqings”, carry on in writing moving socialist stories

    2. invite writers from all over to Chongqing to experience life there, write 100 poems that can be spread far and wide

    3. cooperate with the Chinese Writer’s association to create a Chongqing Spring Festival Gala

    4. ask big names in literature to come to Chongqing high schools and middle schools to serve as adjunct professors

    5. ask writers to use Chongqing as a background for their novels, and respond in a lively way to the lives and creations of Chongqing people

    And my attempt to translate the only Chinese sentence left in your article:


    “Furthermore, what deserves close attention is, in the Central government where authority/prestige decays from top down, strong support from the people would give practical political bargain chips/cards to officials who are not sitting on the very top (people like Bo).”


  4. Oops, I just find you have translated the last one after I submit my comment. BTW, is it possible to write comment in hierarchy (reply to a certain comment)? and what’s the short gray bar under each comment?


  5. Well, yes, but some of those are completely different things! Invite writers to Chongqing and write 100 poems are two different tasks. Zhang Wen listed them together but the “five” number still doesn’t make much sense. Presumably he just wanted to say “five” because of the “Five Chongqings” but your items #1 and #2 both have two different things in them, hence my comment. If I say “I want to eat five things: apples; milk and pizza; chips; ketchup and cereal; chicken”, I may have separated five things with semicolons, but how many things am I actually going to eat?

    And the Chinese sentence was left in by mistake, I have since fixed it, but thanks.


  6. No, the comments appear in chronological order (I hate nested comments). To reply to someone specifically, just start your comment with @ and then the person’s name, i.e. @ wang er:

    And the little gray bar? It is a secret 😉


  7. @C. Custer

    Wow, I didn’t realize you had the tooltips for the original text. That’s really convenient! Nicely done.

    That said, I’d still like to see the Chinese in parentheses (the tooltip font is a bit small for Chinese). Not a huge deal though.


  8. Item 1 is a single thought: “Compile one hundred moving stories that reflect the construction of ‘Five Chongqings’ and promote socialism.”

    It’s an interesting comparison of the two leaders, and I always enjoy speculation on the Chinese political process from mainland writers. Thanks for translating it.


  9. @C. Custer on April 20, 2010 at 00:01

    If you look closer,

    组织编写 百个 反映”五个重庆”建设、弘扬社会正义的 感人故事

    has a 顿号 (caesura sign?) in it so it could be translated to

    “organize to compile a hundred moving stories to reflect on the construction of “Five Chongqings” and to promote social justice.”

    I would say that’s still one thing, at least a batch of similar jobs that could be grouped together, “to write 100 stories”. And the second item is to “invite writers to come to experience Chongqing in order to write poems that spread far and wide.” The rest three are ‘organizing a Spring Festival Gala’, ‘inviting speakers to talk in schools’ and ‘writing a novel’.

    Actually you can remove the commas in the Chinese paragraph, replace all semicolons with commas and then the ‘five things’ would be much easier to understand. At least this is the way the author intended to say IMO.


  10. @ C. Custer on April 20, 2010 at 00:02

    I checked the WordPress theme(Magazine Basic)’s website and I believe the gray is only useful when users are required to login to comment (then there will be “Login to reply” in the gray box). I tried to save this page in my PC and edit the box out manually (only two lines) and then it looks better to me (at least not confusing anymore):


  11. I might be very gossip and low tasted but I heard that Bo had many affairs. If those rumors are true, it’s unacceptable to see him heading to the top of CCP. We have a saying 上梁不正下梁歪. It is already very common in China that married men have mistresses, especially officials. And the worst thing is that most of those sex scandals are merely hearsay, no media even dare to trace them, because they are officials-related. Someone said “we should protect officials’ private life”. What the fuck! Such protection only paves the way for degenerate people like Wen Qiang.


  12. I don’t particularly care about officials’ private lives, but I get the motivation behind the Party’s attempt to go after cadres with lots of mistresses, as the expense of mistresses leads to corruption. So… I guess I’m half on board with you, San Shui.

    Bo is an interesting guy. I like his populism and his directness in dealing with problems, especially in the case of the taxi strikes the other year when he negotiated publicly with the drivers. His disdain for institutions—as expressed in his mistreatment of the legal profession during the anti-corruption drive, for example—isn’t the end of the world for me in and of itself, but it prompts a few other questions:

    1) What kind of China, exactly, does he envision?
    2) How can he sustain any reform without formally incorporating the public in decision-making?
    3) What is the point of singing red songs if he doesn’t have a fundamentally different idea of economic growth and development?

    If he doesn’t have any answers to these, then he’s just an ambitious politician. If he does, I’d like him to start hinting at them more.


  13. Well actually I don’t care about their private lifes neither since that’s not my business nor the public’s, as long as their privacy don’t harm the others. But in China seems many cadres fail to draw a clear line between their private lifes and the common good, so they accept bribes, keep mistresses, misappropriate public funds, use public resources for their own benefits…based on this ground, protecting their private lifes is a betrayal to the public.

    And for Bo, only time tells whether he is really dedicated to a better China or is just taking advantages of public support to take over CCP. But his personal life is very important and might affect his political policy. If he really has mistress, that implies he is less loyal to some certain things and can’t handle temptation very well.


  14. Also, I think singing red songs is very stupid and pointless. Whom is he flattering? Why didn’t he use those time and energy for some more worthy things such uncovering more Wenqiang? From what he did, somehow I feel that he is more ambitious to get a seat in the top leadership of CCP. He wants to please both the public and government, what a smart guy.


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