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The curse of China's big city warlords

Publication Date : 01-10-2012


 In recent years, as his star shone in south-western Chongqing city, Bo Xilai enjoyed an online nickname - ping xi wang, or Prince Who Pacifies the West.

It was the title of famous Qing Dynasty warlord Wu Sangui. But the moniker was also an early sign of trouble for Bo, who was purged last week.

Wu was a rogue general who declared an independent kingdom in 1678, and such unilateral breakaways - perceived or true - do not sit well with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

As early as 1954, only five years after the founding of the People's Republic, the CCP's first major internal purge was based on such alternative power centres. Gao Gang, party leader in Manchuria in China, was accused of an attempted coup and building his own fiefdom in the three north-eastern provinces.

A civil war hero, and only 49, he committed suicide and Chinese history records him as a traitor. But his legacy is felt even today. Nearly six decades after the "Gao Gang Affair", the party remains ambivalent, or even suspicious, of its regional chiefs.

It has not gone unnoticed by observers that the fall of Bo, 63, means that the last three most senior leaders disgraced in China were kingpins in major cities. "Probably it is not accidental," said professor of political science Wang Jianwei from the University of Macau.

Chen Xitong controlled Beijing city, a position regarded as local even though it is based in the capital, until his fall in 1995.

He was followed by Shanghai boss Chen Liangyu in 2006, who ran the country's most glamorous and wealthiest metropolis.

Bo joined them last week, expelled from the party and condemned to a likely long jail term for his indiscretions as Chongqing's high-flying chieftain. All three were members of the elite Politburo. But none had a day job with the central government when their careers ended.

"The pattern emerging is that... these regional party bosses have too much power and listened to nobody. No checks and balances to restrain their abuses of power," said Prof Wang.

The party tags it shantou zhuyi, or mountain stronghold mentality. It has its roots in the party's early days. When it was a guerilla underdog battling the ruling Kuomintang in the 1920s and 1930s, it had troops scattered across the country. Often, due to poor communications, the chains of command were localised.

"The tension between the central and the local can be traced to those early days," said Peking University analyst Zhang Jian. It improved after the communists took power, but never went away. Besides Gao, others like Beijing party boss Peng Zhen and Sichuan leader Li Jingquan were also later accused of building "independent kingdoms" in the 1960s.

Such an overt accusation does not surface these days. But as the examples of the two Chens and Bo show, regional titans must tread carefully. "Bo, like Gao, has become a victim of the power of centralised rule," said Professor Sam Crane of Williams College in Massachusetts.

It is a systemic problem, the result of a highly centralised government in a large country.

"Authoritarian rulers are fearful of rebellion from local leaders, especially in a big country like China," said Texas' Southern Methodist University analyst Hiroki Takeuchi, who researched the "Gao Gang Affair". "Strong local leaders are a double-edged sword because they can raise the legitimacy of the regime by governing well while they can undermine the legitimacy by challenging the central authority."

That this should happen with Bo ought to alarm the top leaders. Unlike the two Chens, who had deep roots in their fiefdoms, Bo was almost alien to Chongqing when he arrived in late 2007, parachuted in by Beijing. Yet, he managed to build up such a strong base quickly. His incident could influence how the party picks the new leaders of these major cities at next month's power transition.

"The leadership will be more careful," said Wang.

"At the institutional level, they need to develop a mechanism that will make these party bosses more accountable and less powerful."


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