Passport

Chinese netizens respond to the fall of Bo Xilai

This is a guest post from Charlie Custer, the founder of Chinageeks.org, a blog that provides analysis and translation of modern China:

In the wake of Premier Wen Jiabao's jab at former up-and-comer Bo Xilai during his speech at the closing of China's National People's Congress yesterday, China's state newswire Xinhua announced this morning that Bo Xilai has been replaced in his Chongqing posts by a vice-Premier named Zhang Dejiang. The one-sentence news bulletin did not make it clear whether Bo retained his position on the Politburo, or whether he had resigned or been fired, but most observers agree the news is a definitive sign that Bo's political ascendancy is at an end. 

A few months ago, Bo Xilai was regarded as a prominent up-and-comer, and a possible competitor for a position on China's powerful politburo standing committee. His governance of Chongqing, a massive city-state in central China once known for its rampant gangsterism, has been marked with a mix of socialist flourish -- Bo brought back cultural revolution songs and promoted "red" culture -- and unceasing pursuit of anti-corruption and anti-gangster prosecutions, often culminating in high-profile trials and surrounded with rumors of unethical methods. But in February it all started falling in apart in way that was conspicuously, almost suspiciously, public for the normally secretive upper ranks of China's Communist Party.

On China's microblogs, discussion of Bo's downfall has been a hot topic since the rumors of Bo protege Wang Lijun's attempted defection first emerged in February. In a scandal that has yet to be fully unraveled, Wang entered a US Consulate in Chengdu, possibly turning over state secrets to US officials, then left voluntarily and was taken by Chinese state security agents. He has not been heard from since, but the Chongqing government did announce that Wang was undergoing "vacation-style medical treatment." This odd phrasing caught the attention of net users, and early on, there were faltering attempts by censors to stop the discussion, but quite quickly it became clear China's microblog operators were not dedicated to protecting Bo and discussion of him would be allowed, even promoted. At present, Bo's dismissal ranks at the top of Sina Weibo's trending topics list, which indicates both that it is being widely discussed and that Sina's censors endorse this discussion. The trending topics list is managed carefully by Sina, and politically sensitive issues never appear there for long.

Bo's flamboyant style and promotion of his own 'Chongqing Model' of governance has always made him a controversial figure, and unsurprisingly the news of his removal has provoked a variety of responses. "Bo Xilai may personally have had problems [...] but he really did many good things for the people," wrote popular microblogger and media-watcher Dou Hanzhang. "We cannot completely negate the 'Chongqing Model' just because of his personal problems."  Beijing lawyer Wang Cailiang wrote: "Many of my friends are very happy [about Bo Xilai's dismissal]. I don't think there's really anything worth feeling happy about. How many officials are there in our Party who were elected and who respect the opinions of Party members? It's like kids playing house, a few factions determine who holds what position. It doesn't have anything to do with the rule of law, democracy, or the people's lives."

Other netizens shared photos and songs to commemorate Bo's career in Chongqing, where he picked up a reputation as a populist and a fighter against corruption, even if his methods of prosecution were sometimes rumored to be as criminal as the methods of the gangsters he was hunting down. "I don't even want to stay in Chongqing anymore," wrote one anonymous weibo user, "with Bo Xilai gone and Wang Lijun removed, is it even safe?" Reading through hundreds of netizen comments, it is obvious that many netizens feel that whatever his flaws may have been, Bo Xilai did noticeably improve life in Chongqing during his tenure there.

As for who's happy about Mr. Bo's political demise, the consensus seems to be that Guangdong Party secretary Wang Yang, long considered a rival of Bo's, should be ecstatic. Bo's dismissal is also a setback for the "Princeling" faction within the Party -- the group of Party leaders whose parents also held high-profile official positions -- and a victory for Hu Jintao's "Communist Youth League" faction. Some net users have even suggested that the real winners are gangsters, who some fear will be able to run rampant in Chongqing now that Wang Lijun and Bo Xilai are gone. One wrote, "With Bo Xilai's fall, the happiest are the gangsters, gangsters nationwide will be drinking through the night in celebration." 

Feng Li/Getty Images

Passport

Why Serbia is still bullish on the EU

Responding to the news of recent acceptance of Serbia as a membership candidate for the EU, Alan Sked has a new piece today asking why any country would still want to join the union. I recently discussed this question with Serbia's ambassador to the United States, Vladimir Petrovic.

The last time Petrovic spoke with Passport was in December, after Serbia had been denied membership status over the outstanding issue of its non-recognition of Kosovo. He worried at the time that the decision would embolden hard-line nationalists. Serbia was eventually granted membership status earlier this month shortly after reaching an agreement with Kosovo that will allow it to represent itself at international meetings, albeit with an asterisk on its nameplate.

Petrovic argued that despite the EU's recent difficulties, Belgrade still views membership as the best opportunity to modernize Serbia's institutions and resolve outstanding tensions with its neighbors:

So what changed between December and now?

This is the result of years of hard work, ever since the change of government in 2000. We have worked really hard under the leadership of president Tadic and others to positively changes the laws of society in Serbia. Getting the candidate status was proof and reward for everything that has been done.

We have been working for a while for this to happen. Unfortunately it didn't happen in December. We're glad it has happened now. We're also hoping to get a date to stop the accession talks with the EU by the end of the year. That's our next step in this process. We're hoping soon to become a country member of the EU.

Serbia has been part of Europe. It is part of Europe. This is a strategic goal for this government and we're going to continue working hard on the next steps in front of us.

Do you view the recent talks as a significant change in your government's stance on Kosovo?

Shortly, no. The position of the government is that this should be resolved through peaceful means, through talks. We've been holding talks with the authorities in Prstina, which are starting to yield results that are affecting the daily lives of the people in our Southern province. We're going to continue talking with them on a technical level, but we're not going to recognize Kosovo as independent in any way and we're going to continue to lobby against their independence. However, as we were before, we are ready to talk about and come up with a mutually agreed solution that would resolve this issue once and before.

What's the next step in your campaign for membership?

We're looking to get a date to start the accession talks. That's the next step. We're hoping to get it by the end of the year. We're continuing the positive change in our society. For us, the EU is not just about becoming a member. It's about reforming society to become in line with European laws and European values. We're going to continue to do that and it's going to be the top priority of the government in Belgrade.

Your government's stance is still to join the EU and eventually the eurozone. Has the euro crisis changed your feelings at all on the benefits of membership?

Obviously, we're always conscious of the economic crisis and the problems in the Eurozone. But I think this global economic crisis will more easily be resolved by a group of countries working on it together. We feel the EU is going to find solutions to its current problems and it's going to continue existing as it exists.

On a political level, it's one of the biggest peace processes ever in the history of the world. To have historic enemies as members of the EU that are now close allies. We feel that will be the last step for the Balkans. The problems for the Balkans started in World War I in 1914 and should end with getting all the countries from the Balkans in the EU and finalizing this political peace process.

ALEXA STANKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images