The singer-songwriter known as ‘Red Uncle’ defends his much-mocked elegy to the fallen politician
Originally published in Al Jazeera America – Sept. 2, 2013
It seemed everyone had abandoned Bo Xilai at the close of the Chinese fallen political star’s trial last week: His wife testified against him, and his right-hand man was allegedly madly in love with her. Amid deceptions of Macbeth-like proportions, at least one man stood by the purged Politburo member.
Li Lei, 51, made a splash in 2010, two years before Bo’s ouster from China’s ruling Communist Party, when he penned and performed the music video “Bo Xilai’s Song,” in which he eulogizes the erstwhile leader’s “springtime-like smile,” “swordlike stare” and sweeping crackdown on corruption.
The music video, which lauds the anti-graft campaign of a man who would himself become the object of China’s overarching crackdown on corruption, was ridiculed by the likes of dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who crooned his own ragtag version of the ballad.
But the ode to a once-hot and heavy career in Chinese politics has made a comeback on social and news media — if only for pure irony — as many wait for a verdict in one of the most highly publicized trials in their nation’s history.
A far cry from Bo, who until recently owned an allegedly ill-gotten villa in the South of France, Li runs a small clothing shop in the southeastern town of Nanchang, Jiangxi when he’s not making music. Still, the singer-songwriter told Al Jazeera he admires the behemoth anti-corruption campaign Bo conducted as the Party chief of the southwestern metropolis Chongqing.
“None of the central leaders pursued reforms as resolutely as Bo’s measures did. Most leaders were powerless in the bid” against corruption, Li said.
Bo oversaw the arrest of 5,000 alleged mobsters and corrupt authorities with the help of right-hand man, former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, the man Bo would later accuse of having an affair with his wife.
Although some have suggested Li’s video was an act of propaganda, perhaps commissioned by Bo, Li says he’s never even met him. Nor has Li been to Chongqing, what he estimates is “a one-day and one-night train ride away.”
For Li, his songs are a labor of love.
“I never became a professional singer, and have never depended on singing to earn a livelihood,” he said. Li said one of the objectives of his musical career is to “promote political progress” and “decry social corruption” through song.
For Li, Bo’s anti-graft campaign represented a much needed response to the rampant corruption he sees as a scourge brought on Chinese society by the economic reforms of the last few decades.
“In the 30-odd years since China’s Opening Up and Reform, society accumulated a lot of ‘social garbage’ and ‘social scum'” – he said, essentially referring to mobs and crooked officials who have benefited from the country’s new, capitalist policies.
Li was one of countless workers at the state-owned enterprises dissolved amid China’s bid for economic growth. The result was an unemployment crisis for workers at government-secured jobs where layoffs were previously a non-issue.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Chairman Mao Zedong’s successor Deng Xiaoping opened the economy to foreign direct investment and launched the People’s Republic on a path of rapid-fire economic development.
Forced to earn a livelihood in a new, cut-throat economy, where bribes were a transactional cost of living, Li was inspired by Bo’s anti-corruption measures.
“You make Chongqing peaceful and healthy / and now the masses have someone to rely on,” Li sings in his ballad of Bo, “Your name makes corrupt officials shake with fear.”
Li thought highly of Bo’s anti-graft campaign, but he never approved of the fallen leader’s program to, at least ostensibly, return Chongqing to the Cultural Revolution – even if he signs his emails with his stage moniker Hongyi Dashu, literally ‘Red-clad Uncle.’
During his time as Chongqing party chief, Bo not only aimed to combat corruption – he also ordered local officials to wear Mao-era uniforms, promoted Cultural Revolution-style art and music in the local media and authored a plan to send Chinese youth to rural areas, mimicking Mao’s own “Down to the Countryside” movement that aimed to force Chinese youth to unlearn what were considered bourgeois habits.
Li noted Bo’s own father, Bo Yibo, was also a high-ranking member of the early Communist Party, purged during the Cultural Revolution, when he was jailed and tortured.
Although Li’s song itself takes the tone of a 1960s eulogy to Mao, Li said Bo’s attempt at painting his town red was not only disingenuous but uninspired.
“Bo Xilai was originally a Maoist, but the people who beat him respect Mao even more, and even worship Mao. In China there are many little Maos.”
Li did not specify who China’s new little Maos are. But he said they are not what China needs to combat corruption, even after Bo’s storied Chongqing campaign.
“Chinese people have already been beleaguered by leftist politics for over half a century.”