Why Bo Xilai's Life Sentence Marks China's True Return To Maoism

Bo at his sentencing
Bo at his sentencing
Thi Minh-Hoang Ngo


Last week finally saw the epilogue of the eventful Bo Xilai affair. The former high-ranking official of the single-party state, both a member of the Chinese Community Party (CCP) Politburo and the most powerful figure of the Chongqing municipality, was sentenced to life imprisonment by a court in the Shandong province. But this legal and political saga is far from being over, as there are other similar cases that have yet to play out.

It was no coincidence that Bo Xilai’s trial took place in a different province than the one where his clans and networks were based. He operated in the Sichuan province, where he tried to sideline rivals under the cover of a vast anti-corruption campaign, and also in the Shanxi province, where he was born and inherited the network of connections built by his father, the revolutionary and former top party official Bo Yibo. Only in this way can the justice system of a single-party state overcome clan networks.

It is also no coincidence that the anti-corruption campaign is targeting these two provinces. The central power’s aim is to eradicate the clan networks that, beyond Bo Xilai’s sentence, are keeping his power in place and are corrupting the state and its system. These networks threaten to drive China into score-settling amongst clans, not so much for ideological reasons, but for pure power and money.

Return of a Maoist revolution

The anti-corruption campaign in China marks the return of Maoism. Contrary to what some may have thought, having been misled by the propaganda of the “Chongqing model,” Bo Xilai and his clan aren’t the real neo-Maoists despite their revolutionary rhetoric and public crackdowns. Instead, it is people like President Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan, head of the CCP’s powerful Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, who harken back to the days of Chairman Mao.

As in the time of the Maoist revolution in the 1940s and 1950s, the policy of the Central Committee — the 350-member CCP authority — is to target the sources of regional and local tyrannies, where power and wealth are accumulated through networks of personal connections greased with luxurious presents and lavish banquets. Then, as now, the goal was to replace the tyrannical power of the clan networks with the single-party state’s power.

To accomplish this, President Xi Jinping followed his predecessor Hu Jintao’s example and sought support from a large segment of the population — victims of the tyrants who operate not only in rural areas but also in every business sector. These victims represent a part of the middle class, and they are the children of true Maoists who sincerely believed in the revolution’s ideals. The wealthy and powerful, who display dictatorial behaviors and ostentatious luxury, are now more than ever despised by the rest of the population.

Exertion of power

In this way, President Xi Jinping launched a vast mass mobilization campaign based on the Maoist model. He called on Chinese citizens to report, via Internet services provided by the government, any corrupt behavior, whether it be the use of public money to offer valuable gifts or trips, or inviting people to banquets as a means to expand a clan network.

China’s democratization is not going the way Western countries were hoping. It is far from liberal in the Western sense of the term. It is happening under the control of an authoritarian state that wants to assert its dominion and reinforce its monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. To do so, it relies on its “rule of law” (fazhi) against local and family tyrannies, which are considered illegitimate and illegal.

The very survival of the single-party state — in the way it was shaped by Maoism and its place in the world — is at stake. The embezzlement of public money for clans and private organizations seriously affects the state’s wealth and, consequently, the main foundation of its economic and political power.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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