I first met Bo Xilai while he was leading China’s campaign against Europe in the bra wars of 2005. As minister of commerce, Bo faced off against then European trade commissioner Peter Mandelson to negotiate tariffs and limits on the avalanche of Chinese bras, trousers and T-shirts that was threatening to bury European markets.
Bo was different from any other Chinese official I had ever met – he was tall and handsome, with an engaging smile and a sinister twinkle in his eye, he spoke some English and he was a master of managing his own public image. It didn’t hurt that he was also China’s equivalent of royalty – the “princeling” son of a Communist general who served as finance minister under chairman Mao Zedong and helped run the country from behind the scenes in the 1980s and 1990s. Most people who met Bo think his primetime charisma and deep understanding of populist politics would have made him president if China were to hold democratic elections.
Instead, he is almost certainly about to be convicted of bribe-taking, embezzlement and abuse of power, and will probably serve a hefty sentence in Qincheng, the notorious prison on the outskirts of Beijing that has been home to countless high-profile political prisoners over the years.
Setting aside his wife’s murder of a British citizen and the attempt by his security chief to defect to the US, Bo’s most serious crime appears to have been one of ambition. Not satisfied with his position on the Communist party’s elite 25-member politburo, he was engaged in a high-profile campaign to join the even more powerful group of seven who effectively run China. From there he would have been unstoppable and might have ended up as president through sheer force of will. Many of his political opponents compared him to Hitler.
In a modern twist on the traditional show trial, Bo’s tribunal last month was broadcast through a delayed written feed on Weibo, the homegrown Chinese equivalent of Twitter that is transforming society and shaking the roots of Communist party control. By releasing a censored transcript the party was trying to undermine Bo’s support and shore up public trust in China’s corrupt and politically controlled justice system. But for many observers, the process only served to highlight the scale and complexity of the problems facing China’s leaders and underlined how ill-equipped they are to deal with the forces of change in modern society.
Over the past three decades China has enjoyed a golden age of relative peace, stability and prosperity after nearly two centuries of war, famine and foreign invasion. Ask anybody in China over the age of 40 and they will describe the grinding hunger and poverty of their youth and the enormous power the party wielded over almost every facet of their lives – where they worked, what they bought and even who they could marry. Today, as long as they can afford it, they can travel around the country or even go abroad, they can work for a private or foreign company or start their own business – and most of them have adequate clothing, enough food and a roof over their heads.
China is now the world’s second-largest economy and it boasts most of the elements of a modern society, including global celebrities such as basketball player Yao Ming, actor Fan Bingbing and the artist Zeng Fanzhi, all interviewed in this magazine. Other trappings of a population that no longer worries about basic necessities include environmental activism, growing enthusiasm for organic food and the rise of motivational speakers such as the flamboyant Chen Anzhi.
From a “workers’ paradise”, where everyone was equally poor, China has been transformed into one of the most unequal societies on the planet, with more billionaires than any country except the US. And, for a system that still calls itself communist, its social services are woefully inadequate and in some places non-existent.
For decades pundits have wrongly predicted the collapse of the Communist party and many in China argue that the country’s unique history and cultural exceptionalism will allow it to defy the democratising forces that have transformed political systems elsewhere. Even if the party does endure, the demands of its people are getting louder and more complex as they begin to question the legitimacy of an authoritarian system that squashes free speech and seems unable to provide clean air, clean water, clean food or clean government.
Standing among the ultra-modern skylines of Shanghai and Beijing, it is easy to believe that China is where the future will be made. But this is one of humanity’s most ancient civilisations and, in some ways, it is ruled through a medieval system in which the vestiges of imperial dynasties still exist and the logic of the dynastic cycle still applies.
To the outside world China appears more powerful and successful than at any point in the past two centuries. But at home, political infighting, policy paralysis, heightened repression and show trials like that of Bo Xilai make the ruling party appear ever more fragile and brittle.
How long the one-party authoritarian state can survive these challenges remains the most important question facing China today.
Jamil Anderlini is the FT’s Beijing bureau chief