Argument

The East Is Still Red

Bo Xilai's downfall doesn't mean China is moving away from Mao.

The downfall of Bo Xilai -- the Chongqing Communist Party boss who will almost certainly be convicted on charges of bribery, graft, and abuse of power in a trial that opened Thursday in the provincial capital of Jinan -- was supposed to move China away from its Maoist past. And yet, judging from Chinese President Xi Jinping's evolving political platform, Bo's Maoist-flavored agenda has its attractions -- even for princelings (the sons and daughters of top officials) whose families suffered horrifically during the chairman's disastrous Cultural Revolution.

Appointed party secretary of Chongqing in 2007, Bo was widely seen as a rising star and a contender for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top-decision making body. He re-popularized "red culture" -- songs, poems, and iconography popular in the third quarter of the 20th century, when Mao Zedong ran China -- across the city and then the nation, becoming the pin-up boy for the new left, the old left, the Maoist left, and, to a degree, all those attracted to the allure of rising power. Together with his police chief Wang Lijun, he tore up the colorless template of Chinese politics by waging war against the Chongqing underworld, exposing a hidden mass of corruption, violence, and decadence beneath the Communist Party's shiny veneer. Bo and Wang waged war against the party in the name of saving it.

Nationwide resistance to Bo's red-tinged agenda started soon after, when liberal lawyers, journalists, and intellectuals began speaking out against the repression that followed his political campaigns. When Bo arrested prominent lawyer Li Zhuang in December 2009, civil society leaders started framing the debate over Bo's political experiment in Chongqing as a proxy battle for the future of China: Would it move right, toward economic liberalization and universal values, or left, to the ideals of Communism? Those on the left believed that only a stronger Communist Party could solve the country's problems of corruption, inequality, and moral torpor. Those on the right believed unbridled state power was actually the problem, as China had learned during the Mao years.

Li's re-arrest, in March 2011, prompted his lawyer Chen Youxi to warn publicly that Bo's disregard for law recalled the Cultural Revolution. Chen was joined by another renowned and courageous lawyer, He Weifang, who had studied law in Chongqing in the idealistic years following Mao's death in 1976. "So many things have happened in this city with which we are so intimately familiar, things that cause one to feel that time has been dialed back, that the Cultural Revolution is being replayed, and that the ideal of rule of law is right now being lost," He wrote in an April 2011 open letter.

The lawyers' warnings struck a chord with Hu Deping, the eldest son of Hu Yaobang, China's most popular reform-era leader, so he invited them in for talks. As Party chief in the 1980s, Hu Yaobang had warned his children that the lessons of the Cultural Revolution had not yet been learned. But Hu himself was purged in 1987 -- without a trial or legal process -- before he could do much about it. Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, who worked alongside Hu, was the most senior elder who stood up for him.

Throughout 2011, Hu Deping rallied his liberal princeling allies -- including two of Xi Jinping's sisters -- with a series of unprecedented seminars. "There seems to be a 'revival' of something like advocating the Cultural Revolution," said Hu in August, a short time before Bo's wife murdered English businessman Neil Heywood. "Some do not believe in the Cultural Revolution but nevertheless exploit it and play it up," Hu explained, referring to Bo, whose mother was murdered or forced to commit suicide during the Cultural Revolution. Privately, Hu repeated a similar message to two of his father's protégés: the then president and premier, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, according to a source familiar with those exchanges.

Bo was seemingly on the ascendant until he fell out with his police chief Wang, who was under great pressure from investigators in Beijing. Wang fled to a U.S. consulate in February 2012, fearing for his life. He told U.S. diplomats his version of the Heywood murder, which included the allegation that Bo had attempted to prevent him from investigating the incident. Bo's rivals thus had ammunition to move against him. On March 14, then-premier Wen Jiabao indirectly framed the future of Bo's "Chongqing Model" as a choice between urgent political reforms and a return to "such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution." Bo was sacked the following day; he hasn't been seen in public since. 

Wen's intervention and Bo's dismissal prompted other princelings to break their silence, as the elite descended into factional warfare. Wang Boming, publisher of the pathbreaking investigative magazine Caijing and son of one of Mao's most important diplomats, told me that Bo's "Chongqing Model" was funded and enforced by a mafia-style shake-down of the city's entrepreneurs. "Basically, the twenty richest guys in Chongqing, he sent them all to jail and confiscated all their assets," he told me in April, in an interview for a book I was writing, The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo.

Fu Yang, whose father Peng Zhen worked alongside and above Bo's father as a top Party official, was apoplectic that Li, the lawyer Bo controversially arrested, was an employee of his law firm. Bo Xilai and Fu were classmates; Bo even asked Fu for legal advice when divorcing his first wife. And then Bo disregarded a legal system -- however flawed -- that Fu's father had built, as the head of China's National People's Congress in the 1980s. My father "attached great importance to the fact that the legal system had been completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and that people's rights, particularly human rights, were trampled underfoot," said Fu in an interview. 

The men and women who make up China's political elite came of age in an environment of psychological and physical brutality that is unimaginable for their counterparts in the developed world. Especially cruel ordeals were reserved for "children of high cadres," as they were then known, when Mao's courtiers accused their parents of disloyalty to the revolution. What seemed most troubling, among princelings who knew Bo well and agreed to speak with me, was that he had glorified the same Mao-era movement that killed his mother.

The Bo family was not the only one that suffered. Many princelings bear grim tales of family members who were tortured and murdered during that period in China's history. President Xi cannot attend a family funeral, wedding, or Spring Festival event without facing the absence of his oldest sister, Xi Heping. She committed suicide near the end of the Cultural Revolution, in 1975, according to close family friends. For Yu Zhengsheng, currently the fourth-ranking member on the Politburo Standing Committee, it is even worse. "My mother was jailed in 1968 and released in 1975," Yu said in July 2012, according to state media. "When she came out I felt that she was not right; she always felt like she was being persecuted. She refused to submit to a physical examination right up until her death last year. At the start of the Cultural Revolution my younger sister was a high school student, and was ‘struggled against' at school. Afterwards, afflicted with schizophrenia, she killed herself. There were six or seven deaths amongst our close relatives during the Cultural Revolution."

At a broader level, Bo offered a powerful legitimizing story at a time when the Party was in desperate need of one. Earlier than any other leader besides Wen, Bo affirmed the country's growing crisis of injustice and inequality, and shifted the blame to faceless apparatchiks who lacked his inherited revolutionary credibility. ''Corruption is the Party's mortal wound and degeneration of its working style is its chronic disease,'' Bo said on television in December 2009, echoing the words of Mao. ''Without help the disease will become fatal.'' Bo, like Xi, grew up in a household steeped in the communist ideals of equality, personal austerity, and the emancipation of all mankind. Resurrecting Mao symbolized old ideals while reminding people of the contributions their own families made to the founding of the People's Republic of China. 

And while Bo's methods were not pretty, they certainly worked. His control over propaganda, ability to mobilize the masses, and disregard for legal process and institutions kept the Chongqing population in check. "He's trying to mobilize society like Mao did during the Cultural Revolution, and to do that you usually have to brainwash people first," said Wang, the Caijing publisher, in our 2012 interview. Bo's resurrection of Maoist iconography and methods offered a way of preserving the power of the ruling families, in a post-communist nation that was growing more cynical and fractious by the day.

Similar patterns can be seen across the Xi administration as it battles to preserve uncompromising one-party rule over an increasingly pluralistic nation. "Western forces hostile to China and dissidents within the country are still constantly infiltrating the ideological sphere," says a document issued by Xi's central office, which takes aim at a list of seven "perils," beginning with Western constitutional democracy. Propaganda outlets have attacked the idea of constitutional law, security forces have arrested activists calling for the party to enforce its own laws, and Xi has launched a Mao-like campaign to impose an ideological "mass line" and rectify the party's work style.

Bo's case has split the princeling elite. In 2012, Wen was winning converts as he sought to frame Bo's downfall as the last opportunity to set China on a smooth transition toward accountable governance and rule of law. But then the Hu-Wen faction hit its own political turbulence -- compounded by an October 2012 New York Times article revealing that Wen's family members have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion -- leaving Bo supporters to ask why he was singled out for treatment. It seems the families dominating Chinese politics abide by Benjamin Frankin's warrior's code: they can hang together or hang separately.

Ironically, perhaps, many of those associates say they are opposed to Bo's imminent conviction not because he did no wrong, but because he will not receive a fair trial.

"I also do not agree with what he did but I think he should be afforded proper legal process," says one of Bo's princeling associates, who was close to Xi in the 1980s. "Wen and his family were so greedy, so why not examine him?" Even Bo's most ardent opponents agree that the critics have a point.

In the eyes of liberal lawyers, journalists, and intellectuals, and descendants and protégés of the deceased reformer Hu Yaobang, this trial is a unique opportunity for Xi and their Politburo colleagues to move China away from its lawless and Maoist past, where imagined utopian ends can be used to justify any means.

But they know that's unlikely. The trial, which will probably take place over just two days, will be choreographed down to the finest details. The verdict, likely to be released in September, has already been pre-determined; the judgment largely pre-written. And it will be framed in narrow, criminal terms, which cannot easily serve to push China toward rule of law. Bo's erstwhile colleagues are set to banish him to at least a decade in jail, while borrowing much of what he stood for.  For now, at least, the scars of the Cultural Revolution remain red raw. He Weifang, the lawyer who raised the specter of the Cultural Revolution in Chongqing, said it best: "It's not a fair trial, but rather just evil to fix evil and violence to fix violence."

PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

How Turkey Went From 'Zero Problems' to Zero Friends

And lost its leverage everywhere.

Not so long ago, Turkey seemed to have found the elusive formula for foreign policy success. Its newly-adopted philosophy, "zero problems with neighbors," won praise both at home and abroad as Ankara reengaged with the Middle East following a half century of estrangement. It expanded business and trade links with Arab states, as well as Iran, lifted visa restrictions with neighboring countries, and even helped mediate some of the region's toughest disputes, brokering talks between Syria and Israel, Fatah and Hamas, and Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Just a few years later, in the wake of the Arab Spring and its aftermath, that once-reliable formula is starting to look like alchemy. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has now burned his bridges with the military regime in Egypt, squabbled with Gulf monarchies for refusing to stand by deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, and started a war of words with Israel for having a hand in the coup that removed Morsy from power.

For a fleeting moment, Egypt was the centerpiece of Turkey's foreign policy in the Arab world. When Erdogan visited Cairo in September 2011, after the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, he arrived to a hero's welcome, feted not only as the first major world leader to call on him to step down but as a regional power broker. That has now all changed: Turkey and Egypt pulled their ambassadors from each country amidst the dispute, and Erdogan publicly slammed the new government in Cairo. "Either Bashar [al-Assad] or [Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi], there is no difference between them," he said last week. "I am saying that state terrorism is currently underway in Egypt." 

This week, Erdogan dragged Israel into the dispute, saying that Israel was "behind" the coup in Cairo. The evidence for this perfidy, his office would later confirm, was a 2011 video of former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy discussing the Arab Spring.

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman shot back at Erdogan on Wednesday, saying that "everyone who hears [Erdogan's] hateful words and incitement understands beyond a doubt that he follows in the footsteps of Goebbels." Not to be outdone, an Egyptian government spokesman slammed Erdogan as a "Western agent."

Such disputes have left Turkey watchers wondering if Erdogan's bombastic approach is undermining his effectiveness. "Turkey did the right thing" by deploring the Egyptian coup, a former high-ranking Turkish diplomat told me, but found itself "on the wrong side of the international community."

Ankara should have thrown its weight around well before the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power, the diplomat added. "Turkey put too much emphasis on the success story of democracy in Egypt and did not see properly the wrong things that were being done by the Morsy regime."

The truth of the matter is that it was always only a matter of time before Turkey's heralded "zero problems" policy foundered. Having zero problems meant keeping your nose out of other countries' domestic affairs, and even cozying up to regional strongmen. That was possible so long as the regional status quo held: Turkey kept mum on post-election violence in Iran in 2009, for instance, and nurtured an alliance with Syria's Assad before the bloody revolt in that country. And in Libya, Erdogan had been only too happy to ignore Muammar al-Qaddafi's dismal human rights record, if that was the price to pay for Turkish businessmen to ink construction deals with his regime.

By blowing the regional status quo into oblivion, the Arab Spring forced Turkey out of this policy of non-interference. Ankara has struggled with the notion that it could not bend the region to its will: In Libya, before it ended up helping unseat Qaddafi, Turkey argued that the West had no business intervening against him. In Syria, it has broken completely with Assad, embroiling itself in a conflict that shows no sign of ending. And in Egypt, of course, it is setting itself on a collision course with the most populous state in the Arab world.

The extent to which Turkey has since ditched its softly-softly approach to the region has been surprising. One of the commandments of "zero problems" was what Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu referred to as "equidistance" -- that is, the refusal to take sides in regional disputes. This was always something of a myth, particularly when it came to the Israeli-Palestine dispute, where the government seldom missed a chance to bolster its regional and Islamic credentials by slighting the Israelis. But in the wake of the Arab Spring, equidistance appears to have gone into the gutter.

It's not only in Egypt where Turkey is now seen as a partisan actor, rather than a neutral problem-solver. In Iraq, it has openly defied Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, accusing it of fomenting sectarian strife and going behind its back to negotiate oil deals with the Kurdish Regional Government, which administers the country's north. In Syria, it has lent unqualified support to the anti-regime rebels, letting them operate freely on its soil, turning a blind eye to their atrocities, and reportedly criticizing the United States for branding the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist group.

The former Turkish diplomat said that Ankara was right to support the demise of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, but deplored the ham-fisted way that it went about it. "Turkey was right to side with the people against the dictator, but it could have stopped there," he said. "By burning all bridges with the regime, Turkey lost its leverage with Assad." And when the international community, wary as the rebels' ranks swelled with jihadists, shied away from lending further support, "Turkey, to use a football term, found itself offside."

Erdogan is struggling with a new array of foreign policy challenges in other parts of the world, too. Turkey's image in the West took a beating this summer with the protests in Gezi Park. Erdogan's decision to put down the demonstrations with riot police, tear gas and water cannons undermined his relationship with the European Union: In late June, in the midst of the post-Gezi crackdown, Brussels decided to postpone a new round of accession talks with Ankara until October. Erdogan himself, meanwhile, has come under scathing criticism in the American press.

Turkey has done virtually nothing to undo the damage. Instead, officials have accused Western countries of orchestrating the protests and various "dark forces" -- including what Erdogan cryptically calls the international "interest rate lobby" -- of bankrolling them. The prime minister's new top advisor, Yigit Bulut, has no qualms about calling the European Union "a loser headed for a wholesale collapse" while Egemen Bagis, the very minister responsible for the accession talks, quipped, "If we have to, we could tell them, 'Get lost'."

While Turkey's foreign policy struggles in the Middle East may have been inevitable, its isolation elsewhere seems self-inflicted. Today, the country risks returning to the mindset of the 1990s, when tensions abounded with Arab and European countries, conspiracy theories poisoned the political debate, and Turks  -- convinced they were a country under siege -- repeated faithfully, "The Turk has no friend but the Turk." Erdogan, it seems, has taken his country from "zero problems" to international headaches as far as the eye can see.

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images