Who is the real Bo Xilai?

March 22, 2012: 8:56 AM ET

A political power struggle has erupted in China after the controversial politician was removed from his position. Here's how the charismatic leader evolved from victimizer to victim.

By Bill Powell, editor-at-large

bo_xilai

The departure of Bo Xilai from political office has sparked a firestorm in China.

FORTUNE -- In the spring of 2001, I sat in the cavernous office of the provincial governor in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning. China was on the brink of joining the World Trade Organization then, arguably the most significant step it had taken in the decades since it began reforming its economy. Liaoning was China's rust belt, with giant state-owned companies at the core of a socialist economy, providing everything from cradle-to-grave benefits for workers to schools for their children.

In order to accede to the WTO, no region of the country needed to change more. Entire industries needed to be restructured, and that meant massive unemployment. Even in an authoritarian system like China's, this push toward economic liberalization required enormous political guts. The prime minister at the time in Beijing, Zhu Rongzhi, had that in spades. And so too did the governor I was interviewing that day: Bo Xilai.

Today, China is in the grip of what appears to be a political power struggle on the eve of a leadership transition later this year. For the past 48 hours, the rumor mill in Beijing has gone into hyperdrive, with baseless claims of coup attempts and tank movements rocketing across the internet. At the heart of the intrigue is Bo. Last week, he was sacked as the Party Secretary in Chongqing, a vast metropolis in southwest China, his latest job, and one he hoped would be a stepping stone, later this year, to a position among the nine standing members of the central committee in Beijing -- the core group that runs the country.

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Remarkably, in the years since I first met him, Bo had become a favorite of China's leftists, those who today oppose further market-oriented economic liberalization and any hint of meaningful, Western-style political reform. The day before Bo was dismissed, premier Wen Jiabao had warned darkly about a return to the days of China's "cultural revolution," the traumatic period from 1966 to 1976 under Mao during which intellectuals, 'capitalist roadies' and others were persecuted.

How, in a decade's time, had Bo Xilai gone from being a reform-minded governor, open to foreign investment and western ways of doing business (he became Minister of Commerce in Beijing after his stint in Liaoning) to being the poster boy for China's left wing, allegedly hankering for a return to the worst days of Communism? And what does his fall tell us about China's political system today?

The making of a leftist leader

Bo Xilai is what's known in China as a "princeling," the son of one of the so-called "eight immortals," Bo Yibo, who fought with Mao during the revolution. During the cultural revolution, the younger Bo joined a hard line faction, but was then imprisoned after the Gang of Four went after his father. He spent four years in prison. "He started as a victimizer and ended up a victim," as Kerry Brown, director of the China Center at the University of Sydney wrote in a recent essay. As such, it's hard to see how he could really be a big fan of that era.

His embrace by China's left comes from his stint as party secretary in Chongqing. There, the charismatic party secretary -- the only senior politician in China to whom that adjective can be reasonably attached -- portrayed himself as a champion of the poor, decried the increasing gap between rich and poor, and backed up the rhetoric by increasing the amount of housing available to low income citizens. He also encouraged citizens to sing "patriotic" Mao-era songs in public parks, which became a popular thing to do among those of a certain age. While controversial, this hardly seemed the stuff of a new cultural revolution, and few meanwhile would argue his economic policies (however successful they may or may not have been) didn't highlight legitimate issues in today's China. To the contrary, they absolutely did.

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Bo's real political trouble stemmed from his other signature effort in Chongqing, a high profile anti-crime and corruption campaign which he claimed was targeted at organized crime groups. It was politically popular, and had it simply been a crackdown on organized crime, it wouldn't have been controversial. But it went much farther than that. Under the guise of an anti-crime campaign, his critics say, Bo went after legitimate private businessmen, seizing assets and making arrests. In a lengthy report on the so-called anti-crime campaign in Chongqing, Tong Zhiwei, a law professor at Shanghai's East China University, makes a detailed case that the campaign went well beyond Chinese law. Secret arrests and forced confessions were routine, Tong says.

"Bo simply went after whomever he wanted," says a wealthy native of Chongqing who runs a private equity fund. "He was out of control." This is where Wen's reference to the cultural revolution has some resonance. Private entrepreneurs loathed Bo, and made their views known in Beijing. Some now take satisfaction that the beginning of the end came when Bo's chief law enforcement lieutenant in Chongqing, Wang Lijun, travelled to the American consulate in neighboring Chengdu seeking asylum, reportedly with evidence of corruption within Bo's family.

In this view, then, Bo's downfall is, in part, the revenge of the economic liberals in China. And since, as a group, private business people tend to press for more economic and political reform -- now urgently needed -- Bo's demise is arguably a good thing.

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That's not all there is to it, though. First --though now we'll never know -- Bo's rise to the standing committee in Beijing didn't necessarily mean he would bring "anti reform" policies with him. His ideological contortion over the course of a political lifetime suggests nothing except that Bo was in the Bo business. One year he's a pro reform rust belt governor at a crucial moment in China's historic transformation, and a decade later he's a populist, "red" song-singing party secretary in China's biggest city. Whatever worked.

Leftists in China professing outrage at the fall of an ostensible champion are thus probably missing the point. Bo's demise in all likelihood didn't come because of his ideology. It more likely came because the senior leadership in Beijing also saw him as being in the Bo business: ambitious, politically popular with a big segment of the public, an unusually public political figure in China, aiming for bigger things in Beijing. Contrast that with China's leadership structure today which, by design, is supposed to be consensual, and (publicly anyway) stupefyingly bland. The tumult of Mao's era has made that an iron law in China's politics.

Whatever his core political convictions may or may not have been, Bo Xilai wasn't bland. And that may have been his biggest mistake.

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