Of course, such descriptions can be caricatures, leaving out as much as they include. Under Bo, Chongqing texted out Maoist slogans and encouraged public singing of old communist songs, but the city also pioneered auctions of rural land -- part of a process of breaking up Mao-era planning controls that stop farmers from moving legally to cities -- which many liberal academics in Guangdong would like to copy. And before he moved to Guangdong, Wang was in fact Bo's predecessor in Chongqing, where he seemed happy enough with the city's more statist development model. But his tenure in Guangdong is striking for the way his ideas have been framed, prompting an unusually public debate in China, pitting one vision of an all-powerful party that can still solve the country's problems against another that seeks to create more space for the individual.
Wang may have made headlines for his political ideas, but his period in Guangdong has also coincided with a difficult time for the provincial economy. It grew 7.4 percent in the first half of this year, a snail's pace compared with the supercharged (and overstated) growth rates that many Chinese provinces record. Having ridden China's export boom for so long, Guangdong has struggled since the start of the global crisis.
Wang has tried to make a virtue of the downturn, using it to reform the structure of the economy. Policymakers know that the province's manufacturers need to become more sophisticated, relying less on making things as cheaply as possible and more on developing their own products. Costs were already rising because of a stronger currency. Now, Wang has increased the pressure on local manufacturers by introducing tougher environmental rules and supporting faster wage increases.
The goal is not just to force industry to modernize, but also to make the province's cities more attractive and prosperous places to live. Coastal Chinese regions now measure themselves on an ability to attract major research and development activities, and so far Guangdong has been losing out to Shanghai and Beijing, which boast China's best universities. Guangdong hopes to attract urban professionals by offering cleaner air and more modern cities. If the strategy works, there will be long-run benefits, but it has also meant short-term pain. Many companies face the choice of moving inland to cheaper parts of China or transferring production abroad to places like Vietnam. Foxconn, the company that makes so many products for Apple, used to have 470,000 workers at its two Shenzhen factories. In the next couple of years, that figure is expected to drop to around 300,000.
The travails of Guangdong's economy will be one of several factors that will decide whether Wang gets promoted to the Standing Committee in the autumn. As many as seven seats could be up for grabs this year, and the favorites include Wang Qishan, a vice premier who is in charge of the financial sector; Zhang Dejiang, another vice premier who was sent to Chongqing when Bo was sacked; and Li Yuanchao, who runs the Communist Party's powerful Organization Department. Some of Wang's liberal supporters grumble that as the decision nears, he has been trying to demonstrate a more ruthless streak, including tighter controls on Guangdong's media and a less tolerant attitude toward protests. This is not a good time for a Chinese politician to look weak. At the moment, hardheaded political calculation is pushing out reformist zeal.
Given the political rivalry between Guangdong and Chongqing, Bo's spectacular political fall has focused a lot of attention on Wang, but the scandal could work both ways for him. Bo's disgrace has certainly boosted the credibility of the Guangdong model. At the same time, a promotion for Wang might be seen as too big a victory for the anti-Bo faction. Chinese leaders generally don't preview their appointments for nosy Western reporters, who are rarely granted insights into their political calculations. But Wang's fate will be an important barometer for which way China is headed. Bo's way may already have been rejected. Will it now be Wang's?