In every year there are winners and there are losers, and 2012 was no different. With the Communist Party leadership transition taking place at the end of the year, this was always going to be a tumultuous time for China, but its unlikely any of us could have guessed just quite how much drama would occur. Here are the people who won’t be looking back on 2012 fondly.
4. Hu Jintao
It may seem strange to list a former leader of the world’s second largest economy as a ‘loser’ of 2012, but now ex-General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Hu Jintao was one of the biggest losers in the internal power struggle that took place in the run-up to the 18th Party Congress.
Li Jinghua, a key protege of Hu’s, was taken out of the running for a Politburo Standing Committee spot after he was implicated in a cover-up of his son’s death in a high-speed Ferrari collision. This apparently minor gap in Hu’s armour allowed former paramount leader and political lazarus Jiang Zemin to take control of the Standing Committee selection process. Jiang’s so-called ‘Shanghai Clique’ returned to the fore in Chinese politics, as the ex-leader packed the next Standing Committee with his proteges and allies.
Hu’s fumble in the end zone also allowed his successor, Xi Jinping, to be more assertive. Though we can but guess at the opaque internal politics of the Communist Party, it’s difficult to believe that Hu would have happily resigned from his position as head of China’s military at the same time as stepping down as Party leader, instead of staying on at the Central Military Commission and imposing his will on future Party decisions as Jiang Zemin did.
In our analysis of his tenure, we called Hu “the leader who wasted China’s golden decade”, due to Hu’s failure to make any real progress on liberalising the economy or breaking up the power of state monopolies, as well as his disinclination to deal with necessary political reforms, even those far short of democratic reforms, such as better checks and balances against Party corruption. While we celebrated Hu’s passing, we also warned against those who would expect anything better from his successor.
China’s paper of record is usually so monumentally boring and staid that it barely registers on the radar of most China watchers; Xinhua breaks news more effectively, and tabloids, like the virulently nationalistic Global Times or the relatively independent Southern Metropolis Daily, are far more entertaining.
The Daily practically outdid itself with weeks of stale coverage of the 18th Party Congress, forced as it was to print government pronouncements verbatim. Editors were more concerned with measuring the sizes of photos of Party officials than reporting interesting news. There were the occasional cracks in the propagandistic facade, like when one Daily staffer wrote a guide to interpreting applause at the Party Congress, or the Daily invited us to leer at the various female attendees with it.
Nothing could have prepared us however for the bombshell the Daily dropped on us on November 27th, when it reported as fact an Onion story about North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un being voted ‘Sexiest Man in the World’, and put it on the paper’s online front page. Admittedly the cause of the error wasn’t completely the Daily’s fault (though it all could have been avoided with a quick Google search), but that didn’t matter as news of the gaffe spread around the world. Even major news organisations like the BBC and the New York Times joined in on the Schadenfreude.
While many would argue that Tibetans should always be counted as the ‘losers’ of any year that doesn’t see them gain full independence from China, this has been a particularly bad year for members of the Tibetan minority. The year started off with a bang as protests broke out in Tibetan areas of Sichuan province and the Chinese authorities responded with typical alacrity, and severity, killing several protesters. In February we wrote about the 19th self-immolation by a Tibetan demonstrator in a year, a number that seemed impossibly large, by the time the government had resorted to posting firefighters at Tibetan monasteries 77 people had set themselves on fire since 2009, as of writing that number had risen to 92.
It is difficult to see any change on the horizon regarding the self-immolation crisis. The Tibetan government in exile has consistently decried the practice and called upon Chinese Tibetans to find other ways of protest, they continue to be ignored. Not only are exiled Tibetans finding less traction within China, but the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and their most effective spokesperson, also found himself denied entry to South Africa and turned away from Taiwan. British ministers were also instructed not to meet with the Dalai Lama while he was in the UK for fear of poisoning trade talks with China.
1. Bo Xilai
There was never much doubt over who was going to top this list was there? In 2011, Bo Xilai was riding high as the gang busting, corruption quashing Party Chief of Chongqing, which he ran as a pseudo-autonomous principality, replete with neo-Maoist ‘red’ propaganda and fawning media coverage. When the mighty fall however, they fall hard. Bo’s world started to unravel when Wang Lijun, his vice mayor and longtime ally, made a dramatic flight to the US consulate in Chengdu, apparently in an attempt to claim asylum. Wang was eventually removed from the embassy and spirited away to Beijing, but the story kept going as details began to emerge of rampant corruption and murder in Chongqing. Rumours abounded until Bo was eventually ousted as Party Chief of Chonqing in March and commentators weighed in to kick the princeling while he was down.
Things went from bad to worse for Bo as the details of the scandal that had toppled him began to emerge. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was accused of murdering or having murdered British businessman (and possible spy) Neil Heywood. Gu was charged with Heywood’s murder in July, and went on trial in Anhui a month later where she was swiftly convicted of murder and given a suspended death sentence. Bo himself was officially kicked out of the Politburo in September and charged with multiple crimes, including Heywood’s murder, numerous acts of corruption and, in what really caught the public’s imagination, maintaining “improper sexual relationships with a number of women”.
Bo’s fall was so dramatic and so complete that one could be forgiven for feeling sorry for him. That is, until details of the astounding levels of corruption, graft, and nepotism that were allowed to take hold in Chongqing under Bo began to leak. Even Bo’s signature achievement, breaking the back of the Chongqing Mob, is beginning to unravel, as authorities become more willing to listen to allegations of rampant abuse of law during the investigations, including forged confessions, torture, and the jailing of lawyers who sought to do their jobs.
Bo Xilai started 2012 as a shoe-in for a high ranking place on the Politburo Standing Committee. He ended it in prison, where he will likely spend the rest of his life.
Additional reporting by Henry Williams.