Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Red Songs, Black Boxes and the Tale of Bo Xilai

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Professor of History at UC-Irvine, wrote China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, published by Oxford University in 2010. He is an Asia Society Associate Fellow.

The fall of Bo Xilai, the flamboyant and controversial Chongqing leader, qualifies as one of the big Chinese news stories of 2012. It does so first because it may signal the end of the short strange career of the so-called “Chongqing Model” associated with him.  This is a hard-to-pin-down catchall term for a cluster of policies and campaigns Bo introduced while in charge of the city.  The “model” involves a mixture of appeals to Mao era ideals of social equality, innovations in urban planning, dramatic moves against figures accused of being part of organized crime syndicates, and strategic use of symbols from the revolutionary past.  It may be best known for the mass singing of “red songs” that Bo promoted in Chongqing last year, which started a widespread trend.

In addition, and perhaps more importantly, Bo’s ouster removes any lingering doubt on a key question: whether fissures within the Chinese political elite continue to be significant.  The current leadership group has been striving for years to convince audiences at home and abroad that its members are all on the same page.  Factional divides are seen as anathema to this stability-obsessed group, whose members blame competition and tension among party leaders for wreaking havoc on the country in the Mao years and providing the space for the massive multi-class and multi-locale protest movement of 1989 to grow.  But the steps taken against Bo, who has been associated with “left” and “conservative” (in China, oddly, the two can go together) and “princeling” (his father was a key figure in an earlier generation of officials) factions, provide clear evidence of the persistence of various kinds of divides — even if it turns out that, by the time he fell, Bo had so few supporters left in the inner circle that his fall was the result of a unanimous decision by a core group of top leaders.

In light of this, it’s no surprise that, within hours of word breaking that Bo had been stripped of his post as Chongqing’s Party Secretary, the development was being dissected by every major international news organization.  And no surprise that the news was spawning copious comments, scores of rumors, and plenty of jokes on the Chinese internet, mostly via short posts on Weibo, the Twitter-like site that, despite efforts by government censors to neuter it, serves as the closest thing to a freewheeling PRC public sphere....

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