The title of this piece is of course a reference to Wu Han’s famous play, Hai Rui Dismissed from Office. The protagonist of this masterpiece, Hai Rui, is an efficient magistrate who is portrayed as someone very dutiful and ever-ready to serve the people. One fine day, when he decides to call on the emperor to inform him of the excesses committed by officials in the country, he also ends up criticizing him. The emperor, angered at this, absolves him of his duties and dismisses him from office. The emperor dies a year later whereupon Hai Rui is reinstated. In real life, Hai Rui was sentenced to death, but before the sentence could be carried out, the emperor died and Hai Rui was subsequently politically rehabilitated.
During the Great Leap Forward, this play gained center-stage in Chinese cultural (and later, political) life. Mao Zedong, who initially was pleased with performances of the play, was aghast at comparisons being made between the historical play and contemporary Chinese politics. According to many critics, the fate of Hai Rui, a beloved figure, bore striking resemblance to the circumstances Peng Dehuai, a military leader from a poor socio-economic background who had gained prominence as a supporter of Mao in the early years of the Communist Revolution, found himself in. In the 8th Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee of the Communist Party of China held in Lushan District in July 1959, Peng personally wrote to Mao criticizing certain aspects of the Great Leap Forward. Mao, who never took to criticism kindly, dismissed Peng from his duties as Defence Minister and replaced him with Lin Biao. Moreover, during the Cultural Revolution, Peng was one of the first prominent faces to bear the brunt of the Red Guards. He died of a complicated medical condition in 1974, two years before Mao did. He was, however, along with many other dissidents of the Mao era, honored posthumously by Deng Xiaoping, after Mao’s death.
Bo Xilai’s sacking earlier this year from the Chinese Communist Party has made much news, especially in the international media. Bo Xilai was party secretary of Chongqing municipality and member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and part of the Politburo. He was seen as a populist leader, thanks to his crackdown, aided by police chief, Wang Lijun, on powerful triads in Chongqing. The Chongqing gang trials that followed this clampdown made a lot of news in China and also in the West. Bo and Wang were at the centre of the media’s focus until the trails ended last year. In addition to this, Bo Xilai was known to advocate a return to Maoist principles. He spoke negatively of the increasing gap between the rich and the poor in China and encouraged people to sing Red Songs (once popular in the country) and even initiated a media campaign to this effect. He was also known to sponsor the academia in his municipality to conduct extensive research on and espouse his model of development, the Chongqing Model. Why did he lose his seat and in effect the opportunity to get elected to the Central Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China at this year’s National Congress?
One explanation could lie in the fact that the Chinese Communist Party has always been wary of party leaders becoming too popular in mainstream society. The cult-of-personality type is disapproved of and generally nipped in the bud. Another example of this from recent times involves the former party secretary of Shanghai municipality, Chen Liangyu, who is currently imprisoned on corruption charges and abuse of power. Chen, associated with the build up to the mammoth Expo 2010 Shanghai China and the development of Shanghai as an economic hub, was known to publicly disagree with certain leaders of the Politburo. He was also quite a popular leader, especially during his tenure as mayor of Shanghai. A lot of the distaste for a leadership style that panders to the masses stems from the legacy of Mao and the Cultural Revolution. That period is one China has still not been able to shake itself off from. While the Cultural Revolution was officially rebuked in 1981 and much of the blame leveled at Mao as also at the Gang of 4, no official investigation into the excesses of the revolution has ever been called for. It is a topic that public intellectuals even today are dissuaded from discussing. The power of one man to completely tear away the fabric of society and weave one in his own image has been demonstrated in the past in China and the status quo loving leaders of the country are thus suspicious of any party member who is seen as being disrespectful towards the party and not abiding by its hierarchical structure.
When Wang Lijun, the police chief of Chongqing, walked into the American Consulate in Chengdu, he effectively ended Bo’s career. As with most things in the Middle Kingdom, the details are murky, but apparently Wang wanted to come clean on Neil Heywood’s murder. Neil Heywood, a British businessman who was known to be close to Bo Xilai died under suspicious circumstances last November and according to Wang, Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was a suspect in the plot. The incident nonetheless precipitated Bo’s downfall as he was fired only weeks later. It must be mentioned however that Bo and his wife will face charges separately; at the time of writing Gu Kailai had been convicted of the murder of Neil Heywood. Bo Xilai’s fate however remains uncertain.
Party rivalry cannot be ruled out. It is well known that Wang Yang, party secretary of Guangdong province and former party secretary of Chongqing municipality, was a fervent proponent of his Guangdong Model of development which was in opposition to Bo’s stated Chongqing model. It looks like Wang may have had a lot to gain from Bo’s exit, especially with the elections to the Central Politburo Standing Committee round the corner. History suggests that Bo will go on trail and face the heavy hand of the Chinese justice system. A death sentence looks unlikely, but the party will not wish for him to get off lightly at a time when many Chinese believe that the judicial process is tilted in favour of the rich and the influential.
There are no direct comparisons to be made between Wu Han’s play and Bo Xilai’s yet undecided fate. In fact, the latter unlike the former, might really be guilty for some of the offences he is charged with; at least that seems to be the case. However, it does highlight the Chinese state’s historically autocratic arrangement. While in the past the emperor could do no wrong, in present times it seems that Zhongnanhai is infallible. The Chinese have never experienced any shade of liberalism. There have been tolerant rulers in the past including Wu-ti (Han Dynasty) and Kangxi (Qing Dynasty) but even they were not willing to compromise on absolute loyalty to the ruling house and to the country. Of course, one could make the argument that that was the case everywhere in the world. However, one could also in the same breath state that the obliteration of the monarchy in China took a long time coming, having only been achieved a hundred years ago. What Europe could do hundreds of years before, China could only in 1912.
Discipline and loyalty to the state are virtues and to show dissent is to err. Minor faults may be pardoned, but if it reflects poorly on the state and the party involved is seen as a challenger to the status quo, he is disposed of. “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No (New) China”, was a song that used to be sung by Chinese Communists during the Mao era. That is the significance of the ruling party to the state. That is how the party sees itself even today.