China’s Falling Star

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Imaginechina/Corbis
Bo Xilai, who was removed from his post as Party secretary of Chongqing in mid-March, at a meeting of the Chongqing delegation during the Third Session of the 11th National People’s Congress, Beijing, March 6, 2010

In China, the year is traditionally divided into periods based on the moon’s orbit around the earth and the sun’s path across the sky. This lunisolar calendar is laden with myths and celebrated by rituals that allowed Chinese to mark time and make sense of their world.

So too the modern political calendar in China. It takes shape around the mysterious workings of the Communist Party, which rotates its top leaders every decade at a Party congress, a comet-like event that awes onlookers as a portent of change and renewal. The next congress is set to take place in the fall of 2012—the eighteenth occurrence in the Party’s ninety-one-year history—and is already being associated with unusual phenomena.

The most spectacular was the eclipse of Bo Xilai in mid-March. The mercurial leader of the city-state of Chongqing—it is roughly the size of Austria, but has a population of 30 million, nearly four times as large—was forced to step down on March 15. Just a few months ago, commentators were saying that Bo was a serious candidate for the nine-member Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo, the apogee of power. Suddenly, he had vanished from the heavens. How did this happen and what does it mean?

The answer is rooted in a constellation of powerful families who helped the Communists win power in the 1940s and are trying to align their interests before the great congress begins. Bo’s father was Bo Yibo, a famous civil war general who hung on to life so long—he was ninety-eight when he died in 2007—that he was dubbed one of the “Eight Immortals.” (Traditionally, this refers to a group of Daoist gods; in modern Chinese politics it means a specific group of old men who helped shape Chinese political life from the 1980s through the early 2000s.)

Thanks to his father, the younger Bo rose rapidly in the Party: he was mayor of a prosperous city, governor of a province, and then commerce secretary. But by the time of a Party reshuffle in 2007, the elder Bo had died and Bo Xilai was shunted off to Chongqing, a lateral move at best. His consolation prize was a seat on the Politburo, making him one of the Party’s top two dozen leaders. But he still lacked a place on the much more exclusive Standing Committee, an appointment some analysts thought might occur at the congress this fall.

That all changed on March 15, when the government released a one-sentence report on its Xinhua news agency announcing that Chongqing had a new Party secretary, replacing Bo. The report did not say that he had been removed from the Politburo, although one presumes this will happen at …

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