In the glare of the social media, it has been impossible for China's authorities to keep a clamp on things, especially why Bo Xilai had to leave.
The fall of Bo Xilai, the one-time rock star of Chinese politics, has taken on Macbeth-like dimensions: on Tuesday he was suspended from the Communist Party and his wife was put under investigation in connection with the death last November of British businessperson Neil Heywood.
At first, the leadership in Beijing appeared unsure about how to handle the rapidly evolving affair. There will certainly be many more revelations to come. But for the moment it is plain that the leadership decided that Bo had to go as it prepares for its 10-yearly transition later this year.
Although he had cut a swath for the past five years with his promotion of his megacity of Chongqing, complete with the singing of old patriotic songs, he was too flamboyant and uncontrolled a figure to be tolerated by the consensus board that runs China - and he lacked solid factional support.
He was too much of an individualist in a system that works by committee. Whatever fame it brought him, his ambition made him vulnerable in the end.
But the dramatic events show the growing power of modern communications. Forty years ago a somewhat similar episode involving Mao Zedong’s chosen successor, Lin Biao, was hushed up for years and we still do not know the full story.
But now social media, the internet, blogs and the greater freedom of individuals in the people’s republic make it impossible to clamp down in the old way. The leadership tried to shut down debate, punishing websites that hosted postings on the Bo case, but it could not prevail.
It would be wrong to see the denouement as a simple victory for free information. Bo fell because he was too much of a tall poppy and lacked allies. His handling of the fallout from Heywood’s death in a Chongqing hotel room was also exceedingly clumsy. But in the past the brutal factional game played at the top of Chinese politics could have been kept hidden behind the screen.
That is no longer the case. This is a cause for celebration, even if it might leave the men in dark suits who run China perplexed about how they apply one-party rule in such a rapidly evolving society.—