One of the good things about the way which China’s leadership rivalries have broken into the open since Bo Xilai went is that you’re getting more stuff like this epic account of Wen Jiabao’s revenge:
If Premier Wen Jiabao is "China's best actor," as his critics allege, he saved his finest performance for last. After three hours of eloquent and emotional answers in his final news conference at the National People's Congress annual meeting this month, Wen uttered his public political masterstroke, reopening debate on one of the most tumultuous events in the Chinese Communist Party's history and hammering the final nail in the coffin of his great rival, the now-deposed Chongqing Communist Party boss Bo Xilai. And in striking down Bo, Wen got his revenge on a family that had opposed him and his mentor countless times in the past.
Responding to a gently phrased question about Chongqing, Wen foreshadowed Bo's political execution, a seismic leadership rupture announced the following day that continues to convulse China's political landscape to an extent not seen since 1989. But the addendum that followed might be even more significant. Indirectly, but unmistakably, Wen defined Bo as man who wanted to repudiate China's decades-long effort to reform its economy, open to the world, and allow its citizens to experience modernity. He framed the struggle over Bo's legacy as a choice between urgent political reforms and "such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution," culminating a 30-year battle for two radically different versions of China, of which Bo Xilai and Wen Jiabao are the ideological heirs. In Wen's world, bringing down Bo is the first step in a battle between China's Maoist past and a more democratic future as personified by his beloved mentor, 1980s Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang. His words blew open the facade of party unity that had held since the massacres of Tiananmen Square.
However, I don’t think it holds up, largely because to sustain the theory that Bo and Wen are representatives and/or leaders of different ideological tendencies within the Party you have to leave too much of the Party out.
It’s not mentioned, for instance, that Wen owes his comeback to the patronage of Zhu Rongji, and by extension to the Shanghai gang that Deng Xiaoping brought in to restore stability after Tiananmen. In other words, he didn’t come to power as a reformer but as a practitioner of stability management through the pursuit of economic growth. Of course, this doesn’t rule out an additional commitment to political reform, but it indicates that it might not exist in the sustained way that Garnaut argues for. The overall picture of Wen isn’t that of a reformist mole working his way up inside the apparat but of a skilled trimmer who has never put his opinions before his determination to advance. This is only to be expected: a former protégé of both Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang will have a lot to live down.
Moreover, he has been consistently assessed as a weak Premier, unlike Zhu who bossed the job and was often seen as the dominant partner in his pairing with Jiang Zemin. He can go and sympathise with the masses after some disaster or other and issue the occasional plaintive call for something that sounds a bit like political liberalization but it goes against the grain to believe that he can make something like Bo’s ouster happen. He’s never made anything happen so far as I can tell.
It’s also not clear that Bo and Wen have been long term ideological opponents: I’ve never been convinced that the ‘princelings’ are a faction in the same way that the Shanghai Gang were and the CYL-populist group are now: as red aristocracy they don’t have to work their way up through patron-client networks in the same way and are free of the collective ties these impose. Nonetheless, they and the Shanghai gang are arguably part of the same loose meta faction of ‘elitists’ urban, more outward looking, from higher party backgrounds, oriented towards the development of the coastal cities and so on. In other words, Wen and Bo were, in a very broad way, factional allies. At this point it’s worth noting as well that Garnaut is describing a vital ideological struggle that leaves the CYL people out of the loop entirely, even though they are the currently dominant faction in the Party and led by the Party Secretary and President.
There’s also the fact that while Bo senior might have been instrumental in the purge of Hu Yaobang, Bo junior’s ‘redness’ is of very recent vintage. He was Mr Globalization when he was running the trade ministry and Mr Green Mayor when he was running Dalian. His history is one of picking up political identities to aid his career progress and exchanging them for others when he takes up new posts.
This gets us to what I still think is the fundamental reason for his ouster. The CPC higher ups were always reportedly irritated by his flamboyant approach to running his fiefdoms. I think that this rapidly changed to alarm when he started getting everyone singing red songs and running the whole panoply of Kitsch Maoism in Chongqing, something which represented a challenge to the whole principle of collective leadership in the Communist party established by Deng and his successors and designed explicitly to avoid the prospect of a skilled demagogue manipulating public anger against the Party as a whole.
So it isn’t Cult Revolt versus Reform. Bo’s antics alarmed people who have no intention of reforming anything, and indeed people whose job is partly to prevent reform happening. When the head of CDIC told Chongqing that the fun was over it became safe for Wen Jiabao in his persona as chief weathervane, to put the cherry on top. This is probably how Wen’s words are significant. If there was a realistic prospect of Bo steaming back, shitlist in hand and loaded for bear, Wen wouldn’t have said what he did.