‘March 14’ used to be shorthand in China for the 2008 unrest in Tibet; now it stands for the 2012 ‘Chongqing incident’. It is unusual for municipal policy to have national impact, and rarer still for the removal of a city leader to become international news. Some observers have argued that the dismissal of Bo Xilai, the party secretary of Chongqing, is the most important political event in China since 1989.
Stories began to circulate on 6 February, when Wang Lijun, Chongqing’s police chief, fled to the US consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu. Neither the Chinese nor the American authorities have revealed anything about what followed, the US saying only that Wang had an appointment at the consulate and left the next day of his own accord. Since then he has been in the custody of the Chinese government. Reports in the foreign media fuelled online speculation, with the result that all sorts of rumours began to spread – some of them later shown to be true. There were stories about a power struggle between Bo and Wang; about the corruption of Bo’s family (how could they afford to send their son to Harrow, Oxford and Harvard?); about coup attempts by Bo and Zhou Yongkang, the head of China’s security forces; about business deals and spying; about a connection between Bo and the mysterious death of the British businessman Neil Heywood in November. Even supporters of what has been called the Chongqing experiment – the reforms implemented under Bo, who became party secretary there in 2007 – were unwilling to say that no corruption or malfeasance took place. In today’s China, these offer a convenient pretext for an attack on a political enemy.
As the stories multiplied, two main interpretations emerged. The first – supported by a good deal of leaked information – saw the Chongqing case as merely a matter of a local leader who had broken the law. The second linked the incident to political differences. With a population of 32 million, Chongqing is one of the PRC’s four centrally governed municipalities (the others are Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin). In the 1930s and 1940s, the city was an important arms-manufacturing centre for the Kuomintang, and today serves as a hub for much of south-west China. The Chongqing model operated within China’s existing political institutions and development structures, which emphasise attracting business and investment, but involved quite distinctive social reforms. Large-scale industrial and infrastructural development went hand in hand with an ideology of greater equality – officials were instructed to ‘eat the same, live the same, work the same’ as the people – and an aggressive campaign against organised crime. Open debate and public participation were encouraged, and policies adjusted accordingly. No other large-scale political and economic programme has been carried out so openly since the reform era began in 1978, soon after Mao’s death.