2012 is an important year for China. After a decade in power, President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabo and the majority of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s principal decision-making body, will stand down this autumn to make way for the “fifth generation” of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership. Yet, in the run-up to this major event, the world has just witnessed China’s most dramatic political fall-out since Tiananmen, 1989: the scandal of Bo Xilai.
Bo Xilai was the archetypal princeling. The son of a powerful and well-connected party member, he rose through the ranks to become Party Secretary to one of the biggest cities in China, Chongqing. Though tipped to become a member of the Politburo Standing Committee this autumn, Bo’s claim to the red aristocracy and the patronage of former president Jiang Zemin were unable to protect him from a swift and unexpected fall from grace. With the CCP predictably close lipped, the story that has developed in the Western press is a confused one. Based mainly on hearsay, current developments include plotting a plane crash and wire-tapping the President, while the central plot revolves around police brutality, corruption and political intrigue, with a cast including a murderous wife, a playboy son and an Englishman.
In the media frenzy that followed Bo Xilai’s downfall it has been his son, Bo Guagua, who has become the unexpected face of the story. It is notoriously difficult to find anything out about Chinese politicians and their families and, to a certain extent, Bo Guagua’s availability has made him an easy target. Despite his father’s official wage of just 144,000 yuan (£14,400), the Bo family’s ability to finance their son’s education at Harrow, Oxford, and now Harvard, has been seen as proof of rampant corruption and embezzlement of state funds. What turned out to be the most damning of all was an anecdote apparently from the mouth of the former US Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman: in early 2011, Bo Guagua collected Huntsman’s daughter from their Beijing home in a red Ferrari.
Among all the speculation of torture and murder, it is somewhat surreal that a red Ferrari has managed to steal the spotlight. Eyewitnesses have been found, family friends quoted, and two of Huntsman’s daughters have come forward to put the record straight. In Bo Xilai’s press conference, as he tried to contain the rapidly spiralling situation, he took the time to denounce the disturbing rumours that his son had ever driven a red Ferrari. Bo Guagua himself declared in a letter to the Harvard Crimson, “I have never driven a Ferrari” (though it has become apparent that he drives a Porsche in Cambridge, Massachusetts). But just why have Bo Guagua and his red Ferrari become the enduring image of his father’s scandal?
The current image of China is one of booming economic growth, shiny skyscrapers and potential graduate jobs. We read of networking businessmen playing golf and buying up the world’s best vintages at ludicrous prices, and their rich wives obsessed with designer brands and the latest handbags. Yet, this is only the reality of China’s 0.001%. China’s economic successes and the attendant benefits are due to the reforms begun under Deng Xiaoping in 1978, but the flipside is growing inequality, substantial environmental problems and a failing welfare system.
While the economic reforms have certainly accelerated growing inequality and the current urban-rural divide, they are not entirely to blame. Despite the impressive Gini coefficients of the Mao period, there was also an established urban bias which has acted as the foundation for rising inequality. However, Deng’s reforms in the 1980s weren’t just economic: the so-called “one child policy” was introduced and harshly enforced; the communes and collectives of the Mao period were disbanded, along with the healthcare provision they had provided; and China’s government system began a process of decentralization. This has left the current central government with severe difficulties in enforcing any steps they take to improve, such as the rule of law, environmental protection, or welfare provision.
With just one child to provide for both parents and sketchy health coverage, it is unsurprising that old age is a worrying prospect and that the norm is increasingly to save for an uncertain future. Children and teenagers have just as many worries: they are the ones who are expected to provide emotional and economic support for two parents – and possibly four grandparents as well.
For the urban middle-class, these concerns manifest themselves in an obsession with education, both in schools and in evening classes, and particularly when it comes to preparing for the university entrance examination, gaokao. Images that appear on the internet of students hooked to IV drips to fuel their all nighters are extreme, but the competitiveness of the exams and the lengths students are willing to go for them are undoubtedly real. For the rural population, these concerns have fed massive migration to urban, particularly coastal, areas in search of work. This underclass of rural migrants is the labour that drives China’s factories and export market, yet their rural hukou (household registration) prevents them from accessing healthcare, education and legal support in the areas where they work and live.
Desperate students and vulnerable migrants are an entirely different image from that of Bo Guagua, with his elite education, and high-end cars. It is the incongruity of these two images which causes such outrage. Rags to riches stories are far from unpopular in China – indeed, they are celebrated. After all, Deng Xiaoping began the reforms with the maxim “let some people get rich first” and each of these tales is a story of hope, but which unsurprisingly stirs a hotpot of resentment.
The majority of the red aristocracy, though they may enjoy above average wealth and connections, live surprisingly low-profile lives, and the fuss that has surrounded Bo Guagua shows exactly why. For the CCP, and particularly the crown princeling, Vice-President Xi Jinping, heir presumptive to the Party throne, this was an inauspicious beginning for the fifth generation. However, it poignantly reveals what may be their biggest challenge: the burgeoning divide between rich and poor.