Thursday, 27 April 2017

Chinese Politics Is All About Power And Sex. Or So We’re Told. The Muddle, Part II

The most recent post here examined the BBC podcast composed and narrated by China news editor Carrie Gracie on the rise and demise of China’s Bo Xilai—an event that Gracie insists “changed China”. The portrayal of the various players in the drama is disappointing at best.

Just as discouraging—and disturbing--is how the podcast presents politics in China.

At the very outset of the podcast, Gracie promises that the tale of Bo’s fall is about “money, sex, and power—oh, it’s going to get wild.” We’re treated to allegations of affairs by both Bo and his wife Gu Kailai, as well as insinuations that British expatriate Neil Heywood was Gu’s lover. According to Gracie, Chinese politics is “a game of power and sex”.

That’s an astonishing claim, especially because Gracie doesn’t show that anything of the sort of shenanigans she accuses Bo (and Gu) of also applies elsewhere in the government. Listeners aren’t told anything about other instances, probably because there’s nothing to say. A single case, sourced by the odd interview, shouldn’t merit a general conclusion.

There’s a deeper and more troubling issue.

Apparently, here in China, officials don’t argue about policy or make tough decisions replete with trade-offs, because they’re driven strictly by their desires. That’s Chinese politics, according to Gracie, with the insinuation that it applies from Nanning to Nanjing, from Liaoning to Lhasa, and everywhere in-between. The vast apparatus that is the bureaucracy here, Party meetings and publications, the training schools for cadres and government officials, legislative agendas and actual policymaking about state infrastructure and suppression of activists and lawyers—those are all so much theater, because it’s the backstage and the bedroom that count here in China. That isn’t analysis, but slander.

Gracie also contends:

“If Bo had made it [to the Politburo], he would have outshone [current President] Xi Jinping. And as this battle was playing out, Neil Haywood was murdered.”

The implication here is that Xi’s elevation to Chinese leader occurred because Bo got caught in a scandal. Xi didn’t beat Bo by convincing Party colleagues, so much as Bo screwed up—because he and his wife were screwing too much. Supposition and speculation are spun as startlingly new insights in how China ended up where it is today--that Xi wouldn’t be leading China if Neil Heywood hadn’t been drugged and killed in a hotel room in Chongqing--the story that Gracie insists “changed China”. 

The "changed China"theme is one that's almost omnipresent in discussions of China and Chinese politics. Causation is almost always assumed, and events are magnified not through a careful elimination of other outcomes but simply because the person writing claims insight which in China is absent. The BBC podcast doesn’t look at any alternative explanations of how and why Bo was removed. Nor does Gracie bother to mention that it was Xi’s predecessor, not Xi himself, who was China’s leader and engineered Bo’s recall and imprisonment. Better to keep matters simplistic, and sexual, with the odd slaying alongside a narrative which is far more fire and smoke than light.

The same problem with debates concerning China’s political and economic direction during this period.

What of the disputes between Chinese leaders about the role of the Communist party in a modernizing State and society? How about the various ideological arguments that raged over the meaning of socialism in relation to economic reform and social control?

Irrelevant factors, apparently—at least to Gracie. Work by China scholars and commentators well versed in such matters isn’t mentioned, and it’s certainly not argued against. Apparently, all that work has been a waste of time.

Likewise, the concerns expressed by Chinese officials, advisers, intellectuals and commentators in State media, government reports, and other settings during this very same period were of no consequence when it came to making politics and policy, at least as the podcast implies. That Bo might have looked to lead because he thought he had better ideas than Xi did isn’t mooted. Instead, it’s lust, as well as the lust for power that propels the decisions of politicians here.[1]

How Gracie would actually know any of that—that Bo wasn’t so much a political alternative to Xi but simply a “sex machine” (her words)--is in fact never made clear to the listener. And how Gracie would gain access to such information about peccadillos between politicians and their partners where her colleagues failed to do so years before is equally questionable. But none of that stops Gracie from presenting China’s political and powerful as automatons bent on bedding down and moving up.

The result is a podcast that never seeks to illuminate Chinese politics when it can be lurid instead. Maybe that’s entertaining for some people, but it’s anything but enlightening.

The irony is that the very same Chinese officialdom that Gracie seems to delight in castigating is the major beneficiary of her presentation: Many of them have been insisting that the foreign media is uninformed about China, very possibly prejudiced. With this podcast, they now have a stronger case.

[1] At the very end of the podcast, Gracie plugs another BBC series and says, “they’ve got one episode that’s particularly appropriate given the story we’ve just told: it’s called “A Brief History of Lust”.


  1. In your third paragraph you write: "At the very outset of the podcast, Gracie promises that the tale of Bo’s fall is about “money, sex, and power—oh, it’s going to get wild.”

    Any article or podcast with such a statement means it is tabloid journalism, and must be read that way. Read with a grain of salt and a smile on one's face. But not taken seriously. This is the challenge with a free press. We must sort through mountains of information to get the truth. But the clues are there... the clue in this case "money, sex,....."

    One of my favourite TV show openings is The Daily Show when they say "from the Comedy Central World News Headquarters in New York"... really? Comedy Central has "world news headquarters" .. "world"? ... it is hilarious. And also a clue that this is comedy. Not to be taken seriously. Not worth anyone's time to analyze.

  2. Thanks very much for your comment.

    The problem is that this is the BBC, and the series is not presented as "tabloid journalism". It's not written by a passer-by, but by their China News Editor who makes a very big deal of all the research and interviews she conducted, the importance of the story in China's recent political history, and her findings. The podcast is clearly meant to be taken seriously, and it's being re-tweeted and cited by many as offering something worthwhile and previously unknown. The Daily Show doesn't take itself too seriously, as you note. But that's quite unlike the BBC and this series, which aims to have something of the last (or at least a new) word about this event. In my view, the result is dreadful, misleading, and analytically quite unhelpful, even dangerously so.

    Thanks again for sharing your take on all this.