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In China, a Fall From Grace May Aid a Rise to Power

June 24, 2012

The New York Times
April 26, 2012

By Edward Wong
BEIJING — When Xi Jinping, the vice president of China and its presumed next leader, returned from a crucial image-polishing tour of the United States in February, he faced an even more delicate matter at home.

A former Chinese police chief had recently shown up at an American consulate, offering what he said was evidence of the murder of a British businessman by the wife of another top Chinese politician, Bo Xilai. Mr. Xi, 58, took part in weeks of secret negotiations over the fate of Mr. Bo, whose father, like that of Mr. Xi, had been a powerful figure in the Communist Party. The two sons are “princelings.”

But despite their similar backgrounds, Mr. Xi sided with top leaders in deciding to remove the ambitious Mr. Bo from his position as party chief of the city of Chongqing, according to interviews with officials and people in Beijing with high-level party ties.

Mr. Xi did not take the lead in the purge that ended Mr. Bo’s political career, these insiders say, in keeping with the political style he had honed throughout his career. He cannily stayed in the background while supporting a process that removed a man who had threatened to become his biggest rival in the next group of Chinese leaders.

Mr. Bo, 62, was a loud, charismatic politician pushing Maoist nostalgia in a desperate attempt to get on the party’s nine-person Politburo Standing Committee, which rules China by consensus. People in Beijing say he might have sought to eclipse Mr. Xi if he had made it, and so Mr. Xi is emerging from the scandal with greater standing as China’s once-a-decade leadership transition enters its final months.

“Xi will benefit from this,” said a former Chinese ambassador now working in the Foreign Ministry who, like many people interviewed during the scandal, spoke only on the condition of anonymity. “It will make his situation much easier.”

The party said this month that it was investigating Mr. Bo for “serious disciplinary violations,” and his wife, Gu Kailai, in connection with the murder of Neil Heywood, the British businessman who died in Chongqing last November. The scandal poses the biggest challenge to the party elite since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

But as the investigations continue, the party is moving quickly to ensure that the leadership transition stays on course. In June, about 400 senior party members, including those in the Central Committee, are expected to meet in Beijing to, among other things, set a date in the autumn for the 18th Party Congress, when the new Standing Committee will be finalized. After the June meeting, intense horse-trading over the committee seats will enter its endgame, perhaps at a secret meeting in July, or possibly at an August retreat in the seaside town of Beidaihe, say people with knowledge of the process.

The party has begun naming the more than 2,000 delegates to the Party Congress, political observers with official connections say. The timetable has intensified the pressure on the party to decide Mr. Bo’s fate swiftly, so that the scandal does not linger over the succession process.

“The timing and impact of this investigation is a very pressing matter right now, with the 18th Party Congress approaching,” said an academic with high-level ties.

No matter what happens, Mr. Xi is almost certain to take over the titles held by President Hu Jintao, while one of Mr. Hu’s protégés, Li Keqiang, is expected to succeed Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Despite Mr. Xi’s expected promotions to party secretary and president, many political observers expect Mr. Hu to remain head of the Central Military Commission for up to two years, as did his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

The rest of the Standing Committee seats will be divvied up between the two main factions in China’s system of power patronage: that of Mr. Hu, and that of Mr. Jiang, who is a supporter of Mr. Xi and had backed Mr. Bo.

Mr. Xi has not commented directly on Mr. Bo’s case. But Seeking Truth, an important party magazine, notably printed an earlier speech of his the day after Mr. Bo was dismissed from his post in March. “Strict discipline is a strong guarantee for the maintenance of the purity of the party,” Mr. Xi said.

The Xi and Bo families are mirror images in the Communist pantheon. Mr. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was a revolutionary hero purged by Mao who ended his career as one of Deng Xiaoping’s favored reformers. Mr. Bo’s father, Bo Yibo, was also purged and came back into power, but earned a reputation among party elites as a back-stabber.

Their sons inherited their personalities. Even the third generations are a study in contrast: Xi Jinping’s daughter, Xi Mingze, maintains a low profile as an undergraduate at Harvard, while Bo Xilai’s younger son, Bo Guagua, is known for his grandiose lifestyle as a graduate student there.

Besides giving Mr. Xi more confidence in taking the crown, the scandal over Mr. Bo could affect the succession process in another way — it might push the party to carry out more consultative procedures as it selects new members for the 25-member Politburo and its Standing Committee.

“Particularly in the wake of the Bo Xilai case, there is more pressure on them to make it more transparent, to give it more legitimacy,” said Cheng Li, a scholar of Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution. “The leaders are quite weak. They need to find some sources to make them look strong.”

Chinese officials might bolster a system of conducting straw polls among party elites that they began years ago. In 2007, at a meeting of the Central Committee and other senior party members, attendees were asked to name the people they thought should be promoted to the Politburo. Mr. Xi got the most votes, followed by Mr. Li, and that helped build the rationale for giving them their current status. Some say Zeng Qinghong, a powerful ally of Mr. Jiang, phrased the poll question in a way that would help ensure that Mr. Xi came out on top.

Party leaders are likely to hold the same kind of poll at the large session in June, to lend legitimacy to the front-runners for Politburo and Standing Committee seats, according to experts on the ins and outs of elite Communist Party politics.

If the scandal had not erupted, it is unclear how hard Mr. Jiang, 85, would have tried to push Mr. Bo for a Standing Committee post, particularly after top leaders learned that Mr. Bo had been engaged in a wiretapping campaign of officials visiting Chongqing.

Mr. Jiang has several strong candidates to fill the seats that will be allotted to his faction. Among that camp’s favorites for promotion are Yu Zhengsheng, party secretary of Shanghai; Zhang Gaoli, party secretary of Tianjin; and Zhang Dejiang, a vice prime minister who was sent to Chongqing in March to fill Mr. Bo’s position as party chief. Each of their chances to make the Standing Committee has improved now that Mr. Bo has been eliminated as a rival for one of the seats allotted to Mr. Jiang’s faction, which Mr. Li, the analyst, asserts has become one of princelings.

Mr. Jiang’s meeting in Beijing last week with Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks, has been widely interpreted as a way for him to broadcast, just through word of his appearance, that he is healthy and deeply involved in decisions over Mr. Bo and the leadership transition.

In the aftermath of Mr. Bo’s fall, there is more talk of the chances for promotion of Wang Yang, the party chief of Guangdong Province who is associated with Hu Jintao’s faction, dominated by former Communist Youth League officials. Mr. Wang, whose economic model in Guangdong was seen by some party intellectuals as a challenge to that of Mr. Bo’s in Chongqing, is now believed by some analysts to be an almost certain pick for the Standing Committee.

As the speculation swirls, Mr. Xi, perhaps more assured in his future path, is carrying out his normal duties as vice president. On Wednesday, he met in Beijing with Robert A. Iger, chief executive of the Walt Disney Company. The encounter, which took place as the United States government is investigating Hollywood studios for paying bribes in China, was noted Thursday on the front page of People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece.

Like those of other leaders, Mr. Xi’s official meetings are often recorded in the state news media. But one has been struck from the public record. In December 2010, Mr. Xi flew to Chongqing to meet with Mr. Bo. At the time, many people speculated that Mr. Xi was trying to build up an alliance with his fellow princeling and rival. Now, the report of that meeting by Xinhua, the state news agency, has vanished from Xinhua’s Web site.
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