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Column: China's real problem with Bo Xilai's legacy

By David Gordon and Nicholas Consonery

In China, the political lens is focused on Bo Xilai, the disgraced former commerce minister and party chief of megalopolis Chongqing. While Bo's contestation of the charges of bribery and abuse of power gripped the attention of the social media this week, Bo will probably not be a free man again and certainly not a public figure.

What the trial can't undo is Bo's legacy—which opened new channels for popular and elite dissent that is likely to haunt China's new leadership.

The recent focus on Bo's crimes and his ultimate punishment is vastly misplaced. In assessing China's Bo problem, the real story is not bribery or corruption in the Communist Party. The leadership, which will surely be tested on that issue, at least will be undertaking a public campaign to address it and is making important progress.

Bo's real legacy is in the way he eviscerated a slew of party norms by waging a public campaign for a senior leadership position. In doing so, he exposed dissonance in senior leadership circles over policies and even personalities-a dynamic that has not been observable in China at such a public level since the Tiananmen period. And most frightening for China's new leaders: He came very close to getting away with it.

Bo's ouster was driven not by his political crimes but because those closest to him slipped up and created a window for his enemies within the system to take him down. If Bo hadn't overstepped and allegedly become involved in the cover-up of the death of Neil Heywood, a British businessman, and had Wang Lijun, a police official and Bo's former ally, never fled to the American consulate in Chengdu, Bo Xilai might very reasonably be expected to be a powerful member of the Politburo Standing Committee walking the halls of power in Zhongnanhai instead of those at the Qincheng prison in Beijing.

The risk to China's new leaders is the precedent set by Bo's campaign for higher office. Prior to Bo's ouster, clashes played out publicly between Bo and other senior officials, in particular then-Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang, over conflicting growth and social management models. Parts of the Chinese citizenry grasped on to these divisions, emboldening a "new leftist" movement that strongly supports Bo's policy prescriptions and his heavy-handed, and often extra-judicial, approach to organized crime.

In the process, not only did Bo undermine party norms against airing dissonant policy views to the public, he threatened the party's very grip on its own history and its public position. As support grew for Bo's social-welfare oriented agenda, so too did public dissatisfaction with the failed social policies of the administration of Hu Jintao. New leftist supporters in various parts of the country went to the streets with posters of the Great Helmsman himself, Mao Zedong, which served as an implicit and damaging critique of the ruling leadership.

This recent history is a main reason that current President Xi Jinping continues to reference Mao and his teachings in public statements, and is reasserting the party's monopoly on political ideas. Xi himself is not a Maoist, but he recognizes the importance of controlling the historical narrative in China as a key means of preserving the Communist Party's legitimacy.

To be sure, there are many in the Chinese government and outside of it that will conclude that Bo's ouster, likely culminating in a long prison sentence, proves that there is no tolerance for such public fracturing in senior leadership circles in China. But while this might be a majority view, it will not be an exclusive view, and in today's high-information environment the Communist Party will likely prove incapable of preventing any public dissonance of senior levels in the future.

If it happens, where is the Bo legacy most likely to test China's new leaders? The two most likely fronts involve civil/military relations, and the slowing economy.

On the civil/military side, critics will likely take issue with the leadership's softening on foreign policy. The shift in tone there has been surprisingly sharp since the transition, affecting nearly all fronts including relationships within Asia and in particular with the United States. These developments are a tough pill to swallow for harder-line voices — especially in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) or military — that will pressure the leadership to be more forceful. The risk is that the seeds are being sown for further divides between the party leadership and the military and security forces. In the years preceding Xi's assumption of power, he was reputed to have better support in the military than his predecessor. His new foreign policy positions, if sustained, will diminish that support, and the Bo legacy might convince senior military or security officials that they have more space to express opposing views and even engage in opposing behavior than we have seen in recent decades.

On the economic front, the political management challenges for the new leadership are looming larger. The new leadership has been tolerating slower growth in favor of reform. But there remains a scenario, albeit unlikely, of a sharp slowdown that could create a more volatile political and social environment, empowering dissonant voices. Even if that slowdown is avoided, as economic reforms challenge vested interests in the economy, more pushback will be forthcoming. That may mean less progress on reform than the government wants and the economy needs.

Either way, pushback and discord on both fronts is likely to be more visible in way that it wasn't before. That will be the enduring challenge dealt to China's new leaders by Bo Xilai.

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