If Premier Wen Jiabao is "China's best actor," as his critics allege, he saved his finest performance for last. After three hours of eloquent and emotional answers in his final news conference at the National People's Congress annual meeting this month, Wen uttered his public political masterstroke, reopening debate on one of the most tumultuous events in the Chinese Communist Party's history and hammering the final nail in the coffin of his great rival, the now-deposed Chongqing Communist Party boss Bo Xilai. And in striking down Bo, Wen got his revenge on a family that had opposed him and his mentor countless times in the past.
Responding to a gently phrased question about Chongqing, Wen foreshadowed Bo's political execution, a seismic leadership rupture announced the following day that continues to convulse China's political landscape to an extent not seen since 1989. But the addendum that followed might be even more significant. Indirectly, but unmistakably, Wen defined Bo as man who wanted to repudiate China's decades-long effort to reform its economy, open to the world, and allow its citizens to experience modernity. He framed the struggle over Bo's legacy as a choice between urgent political reforms and "such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution," culminating a 30-year battle for two radically different versions of China, of which Bo Xilai and Wen Jiabao are the ideological heirs. In Wen's world, bringing down Bo is the first step in a battle between China's Maoist past and a more democratic future as personified by his beloved mentor, 1980s Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang. His words blew open the facade of party unity that had held since the massacres of Tiananmen Square.
This October, the Communist Party will likely execute a once-in-a-decade leadership transition in which President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen hand over to a new team led by current Vice President Xi Jinping. The majority of leaders will retire from the elite Politburo Standing Committee, and the turnover will extend down through lower tiers of the Communist Party, the government, and the military. Wen hopes his words influence who gets key posts, what ideological course they will set, and how history records his own career.
Wen Jiabao and Bo Xilai have long stood out from their colleagues for their striking capacities to communicate and project their individual personalities and ideologies beyond the otherwise monochromatic party machine. The two most popular members of the Politburo, they are also the most polarizing within China's political elite. They have much in common, including a belief that the Communist Party consensus that has prevailed for three decades -- "opening and reform" coupled with uncompromising political control -- is crumbling under the weight of inequality, corruption, and mistrust. But the backgrounds, personalities, and political prescriptions of these two crusaders could not be more different.
Bo has deployed his prodigious charisma and political skills to attack the status quo in favor of a more powerful role for the state. He displayed an extraordinary capacity to mobilize political and financial resources during his four and a half year tenure as the head of the Yangtze River megalopolis of Chongqing. He transfixed the nation by smashing the city's mafia -- together with uncooperative officials, lawyers, and entrepreneurs -- and rebuilding a state-centered city economy while shamelessly draping himself in the symbolism of Mao Zedong. He sent out a wave of revolutionary nostalgia that led to Mao quotes sent as text messages, government workers corralled to sing "red songs," and old patriotic programming overwhelming Chongqing TV.
From his leftist or "statist" perch, Bo has been challenging the "opening and reform" side of the political consensus that Deng Xiaoping secured three decades ago. Wen Jiabao, meanwhile, who plays the role of a learned, emphatic, and upright Confucian prime minister, has been challenging the other half of Deng consensus -- absolute political control -- from the liberal right. He has continuously articulated the need to limit government power through rule of law, justice, and democratization. To do this, he has drawn on the symbolic legacies of the purged reformist leaders he served in the 1980s, particularly Hu Yaobang, whose name he recently helped to "rehabilitate" in official discourse. As every Communist Party leader knows, those who want a stake in the country's future must first fight for control of its past.
Until last month Bo appeared to hold the cards, with his networks of princelings -- the children of high cadres -- and the gravitational force of his "Chongqing Model" pulling the nation toward him, while Wen's efforts had produced few practical results. Bo earned his reputation as a rising star until Feb. 6 when his police chief and right-hand man, Wang Lijun, drove to an appointment at the local British consulate to shake his official minders and then veered off and fled for his life down the highway into the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. He carried with him allegations of sordid tales of Bo family criminal behavior including in relation to the death of British businessman Neil Heywood, according to Western government officials. In Beijing's eyes, this was the highest-level known attempted defection in 40 years, and it occurred on Bo's watch. Wang "betrayed the country and went over to the enemy," said President Hu Jintao, according to a Chinese intelligence official.