Why China's Bo Xilai scandal matters to the U.S.

China's charismatic and disgraced Communist party official Bo Xilai has been involved in scandal as of late.

Kai Ryssdal: Try though it might, the Chinese government is having a tough time controlling the biggest political scandal in that country in decades. The downfall of a charismatic and now former Communist party chief from the city of Chongqing named Bo Xilai. He was cashiered more than a week ago for what are being called serious violations of discipline -- basic stuff like corruption all the way up to and including his wife's alleged involvement with the murder of a British businessman. It's a textbook example of the kind of disruptive scandal China's party chiefs would rather avoid in the name of economic harmony.

Our Shanghai correspondent Rob Schmitz is on the line. Hey Rob.

Rob Schmitz: Hey Kai.

Ryssdal: So this story literally has everything -- wealth, money, power, intrigue, corruption. Make it make sense though. Why does this story matter to us?

Schmitz: Well it matters to us because this really is an existential problem for the Communist Party of China. Bo Xilai was this very interesting, flamboyant politician who ruled a very blue-collar, enormous city in the middle of China, Chongqing. He was good looking, charismatic, he had all these interesting policies that was different from what everyone else was doing. He and his wife were often called the Kennedys of China. This posed a kind of interesting problem for the leadership of China because he was definitely on his way into a leadership position.

Ryssdal: It's interesting because I was out there in Chongqing, what, a year ago now, and there was this cult personality around this guy. He was on all the billboards. His big five reds campaign, this whole thing about going back to China's past, it was all over there. Now it has come crashing down.

Schmitz: Right. He sort of reminded you, probably, and other people of someone else in China's past. That would be Mao. And as you well know, Mao was not a great economic mind. He destroyed China's economic with a lot of his campaigns. The cultural revolution pretty much put China's economy at a standstill. So I think this sort of made a lot of people scared among China's leadership about what this guy could do once he got real real power.

Ryssdal: What happens now as this thing plays out? He's obviously not going to be in leadership, but the thing is that Chongqing is not a small city. There's 35-40 million people out there. My guess would be he's still probably pretty popular.

Schmitz: That's the challenge for the party right now. He is popular. You look at Chongqing -- Chongqing is sort of like a combination of all of America's blue-collar cities put together. If you took Detroit, Chicago, any in the Rust Belt, it's very enormous. It's like the size of a New England state. You've got a lot of the folks who really kind of form the proletariat in old, Communist China. I think that right now China and the leadership in China has a really difficult challenge ahead of itself. It needs to convince folks that Bo was doing all of this for his own self-promotion, that he didn't care about the people. I think that for some folks it's going to be difficult because Bo spent the last recent years grabbing for that nostalgia that a lot of the workers in China still have for that yester-year period of Communist lore.

Ryssdal: Yeah, which is always interesting to realize when you go there that there is this nostalgia. Frame this for me though, Rob, in the context of China's future. Was it really a question of do you go backwards with Bo Xilai and forward with the current leadership? I mean, what happens now?

Schmitz: Well I think we're at a point where for the last 10 years we've had this guy in power, Hu Jintao. He's a really boring guy, but that's a good thing for China. For so many years they had Mao, who was not boring at all. But was, like I said, pretty tumultuous for the country. In some ways having boring leaders in China has helped create a stable economy.

Ryssdal: Yeah. Rob Schmitz, our Shanghai bureau chief. Rob, thanks a lot.

Schmitz: Thanks Kai.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

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