Why Mitt Romney is the Bo Xilai of American Politics

Sitting in bed a couple weeks ago, clicking and scrolling through the political drama unfolding across the Pacific in Beijing around the sacking of Chongqing Party Secretary and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo Member Bo Xilai, I received an email from a fellow China watcher. The message surprisingly carried no commentary on the Bo soap opera. Instead, it was a link to a Colbert Report segment on Mitt Romney's campaigning in the American South. I took a breather from the CCP intrigue, and began enjoying clips of Mitt awkwardly talking about "cheesy” grits and botching Southern colloquialisms, as if he were some eager tourist having just discovered a charming little vacation spot on a foreign continent. 

And suddenly it hit me. Mitt Romney is a Chinese-style politician caught in an American election. Bo Xilai is an American-style politician stuck in a Chinese succession.

Both Bo and Mitt are "princelings," to borrow a Chinese term — children of prominent politicians. Bo's father, Bo Yibo, is one of the "Eight Elders" of the Chinese Communist Party, while Mitt's dad was Governor of Michigan during the state's heyday of national economic and cultural prominence. Bo and Mitt have each crafted entire careers around the goal of one day rising to their respective country's top political offices. For Mitt, that office is the presidency. The prize for Bo is a seat on the CCP Politboro Standing Committee.

Recently, however, as the respective political princes raced along, each in their final lap of a lifelong race and just in view of the finish line, their engines began to sputter.

Mitt Romney has proven a brilliant, technocratic problem-solver whose hard work and business acumen made him one of the most successful private equiteers, and later moderate governors, of his generation -- skills and accomplishments that resemble those of China's most successful, contemporary political operators. Romney even has the same, jet-black, gelled up hair, stiff body language, and bland, tie-less oxfords. To rise up the ladder in China, politicians hone not their human abilities to stir town hall crowds, shake hands and kiss babies, but rather management skills to grow economies and maintain social stability. 

Ah, if only Mitt were graded by such metrics. Romney might be a shrewd economic manager, but he couldn’t make a golden retriever happy to see him. Thus, he has so far failed to fight off two unremarkably qualified opponents, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, whose populist diatribes, culture war tactics, and ability to connect with working class Americans have posed significant obstacles to Romney’s ascent.

Bo Xilai, on the other hand, after overseeing booming economic growth in China's Northeast and presiding over similarly prosperous years as China's Minister of Commerce, has since been playing the populist card in a bid for the top office. Urban Chinese otherwise uninterested in politics say how much they like Bo, simply because of his charisma and good looks. Like American populists, he recalled the ‘days of yore’ through revolutionary songs in an effort to connect with a disillusioned working class that resents the direction national elites are taking China. Sound familiar? 

The outcomes in each case, however, are in stark contrast. While Bo's populist tactics met a rare public reprimand by the Chinese Premier just hours before news of Bo’s professional demise hit state-run media, the tactics are thriving in Republican primaries. Romney’s impressive, elite credentials are falling flat in the U.S. while the cautious, elite apparatchiks like him in China continue to run the highest echelons of government and state enterprise.

So what insights does this tale of two princes offer? Maybe nothing. The United States and China are wildly different countries in institutions, history, and culture, and all of these factors would be relevant.  

It is worth noting, though, that in both China and the U.S., socio-economic mobility is at its worst levels in a generation, if not longer. The voices of the most socio-economically disadvantaged in the Republican Party are making themselves heard through the democratic process, and no matter how much the Republican elite wants them to just go away, they must duke it out in the primary elections. As the Chinese system has thus far avoided electoral politics, a politician there who sought to rally behind the plight of the immobile in his own political maneuvering was canned by his fellow elites.