The trial of Bo Xilai, the fallen Chinese Communist Party official and former member of the ruling Politburo, is attracting the world's attention with its tales of corruption, sex, murder and political intrigue. But while such details are riveting, they divert attention from the real meaning of the case.
Bo's trial has been dressed up by the Chinese Communist Party as part of its anticorruption campaign. (As with Chen Liangyu and Chen Xitong, two other high-ranking party officials who were tried for corruption, Bo Xilai has also met his fate most likely as a result of the power struggles within the party.) But the true significance of the trial is that it highlights the urgent debate over what path China will take in the future - specifically, whether its leaders will revive the disastrous tactics and policies of Chairman Mao Zedong.
Even though Bo and his family were themselves victims of Mao's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and '70s, Bo's policies from 2007 to 2012 as the party secretary in the megacity of Chongqing replicated many of the methods Mao used to mobilise and govern the Chinese people. These methods made Bo very popular and powerful but also created a dangerous path along which the Communist Party could return to the old ways of Mao.
Like Mao, Bo used mass campaigns as well as grass-roots mobilisation to deal with the party's governance problems. His most important campaign in Chongqing was "changhong dahei" (singing red, striking black), a grass-roots effort that encouraged people to sing patriotic and revolutionary songs from the era of Mao and to support the imprisonment and property seizure of the city's "black society" or "black mafia groups" - organised gangs, in theory, though in practice simply rivals or obstacles to Bo's hold on power.
Mao used similar strategies of targeting distinct groups of people for attack and mobilising the people against them, as with his campaigns against capitalists and landlords. Though Bo did not use Mao's terminology of class struggle, many people who were labeled members of the "black society" were owners of private businesses and members of Chongqing's new rich.
While he was mobilising his campaign against "black society," Bo also initiated his own Mao-like "great leap forward" for economic development in Chongqing to win over the poor. After taking office he promptly conducted a huge increase in infrastructure and attracted a large amount of foreign investment, bringing about a marked increase in gross domestic product. But many of these projects were not economically sustainable: They depended heavily on borrowing money and providing unsupportable incentives for foreign companies to invest. Like Mao, Bo was good at giving the poor a rose-tinted, falsely optimistic picture of their future.
Bo also learned from Mao to establish a cult of personality. He regularly made emotional and inflammatory speeches at mass gatherings and used the news media to present himself as a person of extraordinary ability, vision and wisdom. During his tenure, his handwritten calligraphy of political mottos and slogans could be seen everywhere in Chongqing and on the news, and even today he remains popular within certain parts of Chinese society.
Though Mao's ideology and policies are anathema to most people in the West, many Chinese still miss Mao and his era. They believe that Mao, who died in 1976, was the one person who put an end to China's century of humiliation, and they still have not realized that his policies for a new China in which everyone would be equal amounted to a utopian pipe dream. His inhumane and criminal behavior and his ruthless methods of keeping the Communist Party in power have never been fully understood in China.
To this day Mao's image for many Chinese is still largely that of a great leader who made a few mistakes.
As a result, Bo was able to use Mao-like policies and tactics to gain support. Pictures of Bo's supporters protesting outside the courtroom show some of them holding pictures of Mao.
Without a full national reflection on Mao's crimes, the current Communist Party leadership may be able to remove Bo as a political challenger while still embracing Bo's political tactics to solidify power. Modern Chinese history offers several examples of this "remove and subsume" strategy. After the Empress Dowager Cixi cracked down on the reform movement in 1898, she promoted aggressive policies that did not differ from that of the reformists.