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Echoes of Bo Xilai Complicate Xi’s Plan to Boost China Party

Bo Xilai, former Secretary of the Chongqing Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, China. (Imaginechina via AP Images)
Bo Xilai, former Secretary of the Chongqing Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, China. (Imaginechina via AP Images)

In December 2010, then-Vice President Xi Jinping visited the southern city of Chongqing in a show of support for Bo Xilai, the local Communist Party chief whose populist appeal had made him a rising political star.

Stopping by a resident’s house, Xi lauded Chongqing leaders for “cracking down on criminal gangs and safeguarding social safety.” He urged officials to “help the common people,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported at the time.

Xi’s praise highlights the contradiction at the heart of China’s biggest political scandal in a generation, as Bo goes on trial tomorrow charged with corruption and bribery. By purging and prosecuting Bo, China’s party leaders are seeking to discredit a figure who remains popular in Chongqing and whose model of governance earned their support and emulation.

“It’s certainly an ironic inconsistency and therefore they may fail to uplift public confidence about the trial,” Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said by phone. “They understand that Bo Xilai has lots of supporters. They want to reduce all the ideological debates and narrow down on corruption.”

A party campaign calling on cadres to identify more closely with the common people hearkens back to the era of People’s Republic of China founder Mao Zedong. It’s also reminiscent of Bo’s own campaign in Chongqing to revive Mao-era songs and slogans. On a July visit to Xibaipo, a Mao-era revolutionary base in northern China, Xi, 60, asked Communist Party members to “ensure the color of red China will never change,” according to Xinhua.

Other Echoes

There are other echoes of Bo’s program in the approach now being adopted by Xi and Premier Li Keqiang since China’s leadership change ended earlier this year. Just as Bo’s push to ease city residency restrictions in the late 2000’s was a centerpiece of his “Chongqing Model,” Li has made urbanization a national priority. Bo gained popularity in Chongqing for an affordable-housing drive, while Li has championed efforts to roll out as many as 36 million units of subsidized housing nationwide.

“They picked up some mild crimes to charge him with, and of course nobody will mention the Chongqing model,” said Feng Xingyuan, vice director of the Unirule Institute of Economics in Beijing. “Behind it is the Chinese model.”

Once seen as a possible candidate for the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s supreme governing body, Bo was removed from his post in Chongqing and expelled from the party last September. His trial follows the August 2012 conviction of his wife, Gu Kailai, for murdering British businessman Neil Heywood in Chongqing when Bo was party general secretary there. Gu was given a suspended death sentence.

Took Bribes

Bo, 64, took bribes throughout his career and abused his power in the homicide case involving his wife, according to Xinhua. He also had improper sexual relations with “a number” of women, it said last September when he was expelled from the party.

Bo’s trial in the city of Jinan will be broadcast live to journalists in a nearby hotel, Phoenix Television reported yesterday, citing an unidentified official from the Shandong province Taiwan Affairs Office. Phoenix said the court will file updates via its microblog account.

A woman who answered the information hotline given to journalists for Bo’s trial said she hadn’t received any notice about a live broadcast. Three calls to the Shandong Taiwan Affairs Office rang unanswered today.

Eight Immortals

Bo is the son of former Vice Premier Bo Yibo, one of the “eight immortals” of the Communist Party. Like Xi, Bo belongs to the princeling class of second-generation officials whose families are tied together by decades of shared experiences, alliances and patronage.

While in Chongqing, Bo courted investors such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Foxconn Technology Group. Guests included former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who stopped in Chongqing to meet with him in July 2011.

“He had clout, he was able to invite a lot of people down to see him, from elder statesmen to international luminaries, and most people are a little shy about displaying those pictures now,” Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said by phone. “The authorities are taking a careful approach.”

Wholehearted Championship

In his visit, Xi offered a “wholehearted championship of the ‘Chongqing experience,’” Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a politics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, wrote days later in the December 2010 China Brief for the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based research group.

Bo’s campaign against organized crime, called “da hei,” or “strike black,” was beset by allegations of arbitrary arrests and beatings. Chongqing police arrested 1,544 people in the two months after the offensive started in June 2009, according to Xinhua.

Bo retains support even after being purged. Some of his backers defied authorities and turned out in the city of Guiyang in January, where media reports said his trial would be held. They unfurled a banner in Chinese that read “Secretary Bo, corrupt and incompetent officials envy you, the people love you.”

“There is still a lot of support for Bo Xilai in society and a lot of people really think he did a good thing in Chongqing,” said Huang Jing, a professor at the National University of Singapore who focuses on Chinese politics. “The regime just wants to make it quick, simple and send a clear message. They just want go get this done as soon as possible.”

Public Homage

While Xi has paid public homage to Mao, his government is pressing ahead to ease the state’s grip on the economy as part of reforms set to be unveiled later this year. Bo advocated just the opposite -- more state control over the economy.

“Xi Jinping is not a conservative, he is a reformer,” said Zhang Qianfan, a professor of law at Peking University. “But his reforms have run into many obstacles. How does he overcome these obstacles? By using the examples of great history from the party, so that he can further encourage reform. He doesn’t want to give those who oppose reform an excuse.”

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