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Bo scandal 'good' for China, expert says

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
April 25, 2012 -- Updated 0141 GMT (0941 HKT)
A myriad of the people allegedly involved in the mysterious death of UK businessman Neil Heywood.
A myriad of the people allegedly involved in the mysterious death of UK businessman Neil Heywood.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Demise of Chongqing chief positive development for country, expert says
  • Cheng Li says Bo sacking gives China rare opportunity
  • Bo being investigated for "serious disciplinary violations," officials say
  • Drama set off by Wang Lijun's decision to go to U.S. consulate

Hong Kong (CNN) -- The dramatic fall from grace of a man so close to the top of China's hierarchy is "very positive" for the country's political development, one prominent China expert has argued.

The sudden sacking of Chongqing chief Bo Xilai in mid-March has handed the country's leaders a rare opportunity to embrace "bold and genuine" reform, said Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"If this didn't happen, there could have been a bigger crisis," he said. "Bo Xilai may have used the military for his purpose. He may have turned the system upside down in a radical way. He may have launched a very nationalistic movement."

Bo was suspended from the Communist party's Central Committee on April 10 for "serious disciplinary violations," the same day officials announced his wife, Gu Kaliai, and the family aide, Zhang Xiaojun, were being investigated over the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.

Inside hotel of murder mystery in China

All three have disappeared from public view and have been unreachable for comment. But shortly after the allegations surfaced against Bo and his wife, he denied any wrongdoing, telling reporters that unnamed people were pouring filth on his family.

Bo Xilai investigation continues

The body of Neil Heywood, an associate of the Bo family, was discovered in a hotel room in Chongqing, China's biggest metropolis, last November. His death was initially attributed to excessive alcohol intake, but unconfirmed reports now suggest he may have been poisoned by a drink.

Inside China's murder mystery hotel

Britain demands probe into Heywood death

Chinese authorities said suspicions over Heywood's death were raised by Wang Lijan, the former police chief of Chongqing and Bo's former right-hand man. Wang made the allegations while seeking refuge at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in early February, authorities said.

Probing China's political drama

Wang's decision to involve foreign authorities set off a chain of events that has shaken China's leadership to its core.

"It is unclear whether Bo would have fallen if Wang Lijun had not gone to the U.S. consulate," Li said recently in an interview with the National Bureau of Asian Research.

"I believe it would have been much more difficult to purge Bo without Wang's actions due to strong factional tensions within the leadership, as Bo not only represented himself but also a social movement," he said.

During his four years as chief of Chongqing, Bo led an uncompromising crackdown on organized crime, targeting bribery, prostitution, gambling, drugs and guns in the sprawling metropolis. Bo also made a name by "singing red," referring to the mass-singing of militant Cultural Revolution (1966-76) songs that harked back to Maoism.

Chinese authorities have insisted that Bo's sacking was not politically motivated.

A commentary piece published Friday in The Global Times, the English-language edition of the Communist Party newspaper the People's Daily, said the politician's downfall was a result of his "inflated sense of influence."

"The case of Bo Xilai shows that officials should not overestimate their personal influence in China, or they will have the illusion of being above Party discipline and the law," it said.

It added that it Bo's demise should not be interpreted as causing friction between factions within the Communist Party.

"Some in the West imagined a struggle between different political factions in China after Bo's case, and some Chinese believed it. But they overestimate Bo's personal influence, " it said.

It would have been much more difficult to purge Bo without Wang's actions due to strong factional tensions within the leadership
Cheng Li, Brookings Institution

"Bo does not have the ability to change China's political landscape. His influence in Chongqing is regional and cannot expand to the whole country."

Since news of Bo's downfall was announced in a terse statement on state television, theories about his demise and connection to Heywood's alleged murder have flourished in the vacuum of official information.

"Some of the rumors are obviously incorrect but people still tend to believe it because official sources aren't available. Seemingly you're doing a good job in controlling the media, but in reality you're losing control because people do not believe you," Li said.

China enters internet 'battlefield' over Bo

In early April, China authorities imposed a temporary ban on the comment sections of Chinese microblogging sites after rumors spread of an alleged coup attempt following Bo's dismissal in mid-March.

Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College said China's "amateurish" handling of the Bo scandal "indicates that it has no capacity for dealing with a fast-moving political crisis in the Internet age."

Writing in The Diplomat, he said the party's attempts to censor the internet and mobile text services after Bo's sacking "failed miserably."

"Fortunately for the Party, public outrage over the lawlessness and corruption of leaders like Bo has been expressed in cyberspace, not in the streets. But who knows what will happen when the next political crisis erupts?" Pei asked.

Li said the Bo scandal had handed Chinese authorities a rare opportunity to embrace "bold and genuine" reform, including constitutional changes, intra-party elections and a freer media.

"If you do not go with that, what is the alternative?" he asked. "You need to find more sources of legitimacy. You need to gain confidence."

"Based on my assessment, I think more and more people are leaning towards that direction, particularly in the wake of Bo Xilai. And that is why I say it's been a positive thing."

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