Bo Xilai And The Return Of Politics

China Prospered In Part Because It Purged Itself Of Real Politicians. That's Over

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

The storm over the blind activist Chen Guangcheng has understandably captured the world's attention in the past week. But an event of much greater significance remains the ouster of Bo Xilai, the powerful party boss of Chongqing. The rise and fall of Bo is part of a much larger and potentially disruptive trend in China — the return of politics to the Chinese Communist Party.

We don't much think of the party as a political organization these days. It is dominated by technocrats obsessed with economic and engineering challenges. These men — and they are almost all men — are comfortable talking about detailed economic and technical data, but they are not skilled politicians, adept at handling large crowds or palace intrigue. This apolitical system is a recent phenomenon and the outcome of a conscious decision by the founder of modern China, Deng Xiaoping.

When the Chinese communists took power in 1949, the party was dominated by charismatic revolutionaries and military leaders. Court politics, intrigue, ideological posturing and mass politics were pervasive in the new regime, and its leader, Mao Zedong, was a master politician. In 1957 he launched the "antirightist campaign," which was followed by the Great Leap Forward, which was followed by the Cultural Revolution, all designed to divide and destroy his opponents and consolidate his power.

Mao also kept his lieutenants in constant turmoil. Just before the Cultural Revolution, Beijing published a list of the 26 top officials in China. Two years later, only 13 remained in office, the others having been purged. Defense Minister Lin Biao, once designated as Mao's successor, tried to flee the country and was killed. Hyperpolitics persisted after Mao's death. The new head of the party ordered the arrest of the radical Gang of Four, who were said to have been perpetrators of the Cultural Revolution. They were tried, convicted and imprisoned.

It was against this backdrop that Deng took power in the late 1970s and 1980s. Deng was determined to end the high drama of Chinese political life and focus on economic development. He wanted to turn the party into a professional organization run by technocrats, mostly engineers. He required them to have been top students who subsequently showed skill in practical problem solving. He even changed the tone of party meetings, which had been devoted to long-winded ideological speeches, saying in 1980, "If you don't have anything to say, save your breath ... The only reason to hold meetings and to speak at them is to solve problems."

The party was soon transformed. By 1985, the Central Committee was dominated by younger college graduates and the Politburo's Standing Committee, the country's ruling elite, were all engineers. That tradition of technocracy has persisted. A party whose history is tied to peasants, workers and soldiers is now the most elitist operation in the world. Its system of promotion favors engineers, economists and management experts over anyone with grassroots political skills. For two decades, China has been run like a company, not a country.

Eventually, politics had to re-emerge. China has reached a level of growth and development at which the big questions it faces are not technical engineering puzzles but deep political, philosophical ones.

Bo represented the revival of politics in at least two ways. In a system of colorless men, he was charismatic, conniving and political. He was comfortable in front of crowds, eager to push himself forward, and he rubbed against the grain of consensus decisionmaking. Money was, as in U.S. politics, the grease that smoothed Bo's rise. But he also represented the "new left," an ideological movement that emphasized social and cultural solidarity, the power of the state and other populist issues. Whether he truly believed in these stances is irrelevant. Like all good political entrepreneurs, he saw a market for these ideas in modern China and filled it. And there are other would-be leaders — military nationalists, economic liberals, even more-full-throated populists — who are debating China's future furiously, though privately, in Beijing and Shanghai.

Bo's ouster is the most significant purge in the party's top ranks since Tiananmen Square. The party may hope that the People's Republic, as it did after that earlier upheaval, can return to its efficient and steady technocratic path. But China has changed too much. And politics in China is xenophobic, populist, nationalist, messy and certainly unpredictable — like politics everywhere.