At the National People’s Congress during the past few days, one man has dominated the talk among the gathered elite. When he arrived 40 minutes late for a weekend meeting at the Great Hall of the People, onlookers were trampled by the scrum of television crews following in the wake of the tall photogenic figure. Generating all this attention, of the kind usually reserved for film stars, is Bo Xilai, the Communist party boss of Chongqing city in central China.
For the past six months, Mr Bo has been on a crusade that has won him countless headlines and stirred up a political hornets’ nest in Beijing. The Chongqing government has been conducting an all-out campaign against organised crime that has led to more than 3,000 arrests – including that of the leading judicial official – and prompted calls for similar action across the country. Mr Bo has also encouraged a wave of nostalgia for the Mao era, which many perceive as less corrupt. The city’s mobile phone users often receive “red text messages” of the Great Leader’s famous phrases.
Mr Bo’s campaign is lifting the lid on the ties between local party officials and the growing gangster culture. But its impact is being felt well beyond the provinces. For a start, it indicates that the battle for the senior party leadership succession in 2012 – potentially a turbulent period, when as many as seven of the nine members will be replaced – is gearing up. If the governor of an American state launched such an attention-grabbing agenda, it would be assumed he was running for national office – which is exactly what Mr Bo is doing.
“He is trying to perform his way back to Beijing,” says Huang Jing, a professor at the National University of Singapore, of the former commerce minister. “It is a well-calculated but risky gamble to get into the ‘fifth generation’ [post-2012] leadership.”
Mr Bo’s very public battles could also shift the way politics is practised in a system dominated by back-room deals and consensus decisions. President Hu Jintao exemplifies a certain type of politician – competent, dour and skilled at working the party’s inner bureaucracy. By appealing for popular support over the heads of the political elite, the charismatic and media-savvy man from Chongqing is charting new territory – call it populism with Chinese characteristics.
“He is one of a more accessible, populist new style of Chinese politician,” says David Shambaugh, a professor at George Washington University based in Beijing.
Mr Bo’s popularity could pave the way for the next generation of China’s leaders to behave both at home and abroad in a way that is more open and less rigid but also potentially more erratic and, some fear, nationalistic.
Now 60, Mr Bo has long been a rising political star. The son of revolutionary hero Bo Yibo, he grew up in Beijing and has been in party or government jobs all his life. He become well known in the 1990s as mayor of Dalian city, then governor of Liaoning province, both in the north-east, before moving to Beijing as commerce minister in 2004, when he had a number of tense negotiations with Peter Mandelson, then European Union trade commissioner. By aggressively promoting urban modernisation projects in the north-east he has appealed to those who favour economic reform, but his anti-corruption campaigns have also won support among more conservative groups.
However, at a 2007 party congress, he saw two members of his own generation promoted to the nine-man Standing Committee at the top of the party: Xi Jinping, expected to take over from Mr Hu in 2012-13; and Li Keqiang, expected to become premier. Mr Bo was appointed party secretary of the fast-growing municipality Chongqing – technically a promotion but a sideways step in some eyes.
He has made sure the city is anything but a political backwater. Last summer, the first arrests were made in a crackdown called an “anti-Triad tornado”. The public has lapped up details about the city’s gangsters. One of the most high-profile arrests was of Xie Caiping, known as the “godmother of the Chongqing underworld” because of her network of casinos, one of which was based across the road from the supreme court.
The arrests quickly began to expose the extent of organised crime. Wang Li, a law lecturer at Southwestern University in Chongqing who has written a book about gangsters, says it really expanded after 2000 when its economy began to explode. “They started entering legitimate businesses like real estate, threatening other bidders at land auctions not to raise their prices,” he says.
The trials also revealed the extent of alleged ties between gangsters and the local government, especially with the arrest of Wen Qiang, a former police chief and head of the city’s judicial bureau, who happens to be the brother-in-law of Ms Xie. The most senior of the more than 50 government officials arrested, he has been charged with accepting Rmb16m ($2.3m; €1.7m; £1.6m) in bribes, as well as raping a student. Some of the bribes were from officials seeking to secure promotions.
More sweeping than other anti-corruption drives, this one has also been played out in public – often with Mr Bo, a journalism graduate, as cheerleader. “The Triads are chopping up people, just like butchers killing animals,” he told reporters last year.
Moreover, the campaign has been accompanied by a revival of symbols of the Mao era. It is not just the mass texts of Mao quotations. At party meetings in front of television cameras, he likes to lead officials in renditions of revolutionary songs. At the city’s new university campus, a 20-metre statue of the Great Helmsman towers over the classrooms and dormitories that surround it.
Mr Bo is not the first politician to fashion such a media-friendly persona – Premier Wen Jiabao, for instance, used television appearances to marshal the relief effort after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and sometimes calls himself Grandpa Wen when with ordinary people. But in an era when the party is searching for a new ideological glue to replace the old Marxist verities, Mr Bo has embraced the populist playbook more enthusiastically than anyone else.
“He is showing that anyone who wants to succeed has to learn how to be prominent in the media – it is the shortcut to fame and power,” says Bo Zhiyue, an academic at the National University of Singapore. “But in the Chinese context you have to strike a delicate balance between wanting to get things done and making sure that you do not alienate too many friends in Beijing.”
Sure enough, the Chongqing anti-corruption campaign has embarrassed parts of the political elite. He Guoqiang, a member of the Standing Committee, is a former Chongqing party boss; as is Wang Yang, now in charge of Guangdong province and another media-friendly rising star with ambitions for a senior job in 2012. Both now face questions about why they let organised crime fester.
It has also created problems for President Hu, who is well aware of the corrosive effect corruption can have on party legitimacy. Around the country there have been demands for Chongqing-style crackdowns on gangsters and their political allies. Not only has the campaign made Beijing’s anti-corruption drives seem toothless, the revelations at Wen Qiang’s trial that party promotions are bought and sold has created yet more popular pressure for action. A verdict has yet to be announced in Mr Wen’s case
According to Liang Jing, the pseudonym used by a political commentator: “Bo Xilai has transformed a crisis of local governance that took years to build up into a public opinion and high-level political crisis that is very unfavourable to Hu.”
Yet it is not only the political elite put on alert by Mr Bo’s crusades. He has also caused concern among supporters of political reform who see his style as a backward step. Critics say his whipped-up “mass campaign” is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, and they point to the emergence of a cult of personality. (A recent internet hit was a song about Mr Bo with lyrics: “Your eyes are like a pair of swords flickering in the cold light. You stand firm in the face of the evil. The corrupt shudder at the very mention of your name.”)
Lian Yue, a prominent blogger, commented: “Seeing how easy it is for Chongqing to launch a small-scale cultural revolution, this is a tragedy for all Chinese people.”
These fears have been heightened by the arrest of Li Zhuang, a lawyer who was representing one of the Chongqing gangsters. After the defendant claimed in court to have been tortured by the police, Mr Li was charged with encouraging his client to lie. Mr Li, who initially confessed and then withdrew the confession, was given an 18-month jail sentence.
Although Mr Li is a controversial figure in Chinese legal circles, his conviction has terrified lawyers. According to Mo Shaoping, the country’s most prominent human rights lawyer: “This case is a devastating blow for all lawyers. It is the basic problem that political might supersedes law and rules.”
Some observers fear Mr Bo’s brand of populism is charting a course future leaders may take if the economy weakens. “The temptation will be great to play on resentment and nationalism in this way,” says Huang Jing. “It would be very dangerous if this happens, both for China and the rest of the world.”
For all these reasons, Mr Bo’s political fate will be keenly watched. Prof Bo (no relation) believes Mr Bo’s popularity is now so strong that if the next leadership were to be decided by a vote of the 3,000 delegates at the NPC, he would become president. “In the way that in 2008 everyone was all of sudden talking about Obama, in China everyone is talking about Bo Xilai,” he says. Such decisions are still taken by a narrower elite group but other political analysts believe Mr Bo has a good chance to get one of the slots on the Standing Committee, perhaps the security portfolio.
Yet Mr Bo has also picked up many enemies among senior politicians who dislike his high media profile and accuse him of arrogance. There are more than two years before the new leadership is decided, and rivals could yet attack by leaking compromising stories about him or his family.
There are signs Mr Bo is aware of the dangers. Recent newspaper articles suggest the campaign against Chongqing’s gangsters is winding down. At a weekend press conference, he snapped when asked about political ambitions. “We are here to discuss the government work report delivered by Premier Wen Jiabao,” he said. The question was then deleted from the People’s Daily online transcript. Populism in China has its limits.
Additional reporting by Yang Jie
BEIJING — Of the nearly 3,000 members of China’s ruling elite in the country’s capital this weekend to kick off the biggest political gathering of the year, only one has the state media and online commentators abuzz: Bo Xilai
Named “Man of the Year” by a People’s Daily online poll, the subject of an adoring home video being circulated on the Internet and revered in countless blogs, Bo is in contention to be named to one of the top jobs in China in 2012, when many of the country’s current leaders are expected to retire.
In the three years he has served as the top Communist Party official in Chongqing, the country’s largest municipality, Bo has shaken up Chinese politics by becoming a wildly popular politician in a country where politicians in the Western sense are frowned upon.
“Bo Xilai is a selfless person and a fearless one. In these times, we need government officials like Bo . . . He chases justice for ordinary people,” said Li Lei, a 48-year-old entrepreneur. Li created the video tribute after reading about Bo’s crackdown on Chongqing’s mafia, a crusade that not only targeted corrupt businessmen but — in a departure from previous efforts — the senior-level government officials who colluded with them.
The official purpose of the meeting of the National People’s Congress from March 5 to 14 in Beijing is to review and pass new legislation. But given that there’s no separation of powers in China and that some of those who will vote on the laws were also involved in drafting them, the gathering is largely symbolic.
The more interesting discussions are happening behind the scenes, because this year’s people’s congress is the unofficial start of mid-term jockeying for the 2012 Communist Party Congress where the next generation of leaders will take the reins from Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao.
All eyes are focused on which of the “fifth generation leaders” like Bo are up and which are down — what that says about the direction of the country.
In two years, more than half the members of the ruling Politburo are expected to retire or step aside because of age. This would set the stage for newcomers to emerge as the principal figures responsible for the country’s political and ideological affairs, economic and financial administration, foreign policy and military operations, according to Cheng Li, a China researcher at the Brookings Institution.
Among them, Li Keqiang, 55, a former farmer who got his doctorate in economics at one of China’s top universities and is now vice premier, is widely seen as being groomed to be the next premier. Xi Jinping, 57, the son of a powerful Communist Party elder and who currently serves as the vice president, is considered to be the most likely heir to the position of president.
However, Li, the China researcher, wrote in a recent policy paper that “a dark horse can emerge in Chinese politics, just as in American politics.” He wrote it would be wise to “pay greater attention to a broader group of potential contenders for power, especially the rising stars in provincial leadership.” Of those regional leaders, Bo — a former minister of commerce, provincial governor and mayor — is the standout.
While other senior-level officials tend to be shy and awkward in dealing with the public and the media, Bo has managed to charm nearly everyone. He has led crowds of thousands in singalongs of “red culture” songs, sat down for TV chats with protesting workers and communicated with students via mass text messages.
At 60, Bo is too old and controversial to be regarded as a candidate to become premier. But Chinese scholars say he’s likely to be named to the Communist Party’s nine-member standing committee — China’s most powerful decision-making group.
Charismatic, handsome and majestically tall by Chinese standards at 6-foot-1, Bo has become the poster child for a group of emerging Chinese leaders known as the “princelings.”
His candidacy reflects how far China’s Communist Party has evolved from its origins. Today the party’s constituency is increasingly middle class and more concerned with things like business and finance than Marxist ideology.
Like other “princelings” — descendants of high-ranking party officials — Bo grew up mostly in China’s wealthier coastal regions, came of age during the Cultural Revolution, is fluent in English, has a graduate degree, and began his career in the government after it began market-based economic reforms in the late 1970s.
In contrast, many of China’s current leaders were raised mostly in the inland by ordinary working-class families and they worked their way up the ranks of the government bureaucracy through postings in far-flung provinces. Known as “tuanpai” — a reference to the China Communist Youth League that they were members of and that was once considered the place to groom future leaders — these men are considered technocrats who have helped China carry out the goals set forth by previous generations but stopped short of reinventing them.
In policy decisions, the princelings tend to believe the future lies with advancing the interests of the middle class; the tuanpai tend to pay more attention than the princelings to vulnerable groups such as farmers, migrant workers and the urban poor.
Bo “is perceived by the public as a modern, honest and upright official,” said Zhang Hongliang, an economics professor at the Minzu University in Beijing. On the other hand, Zhang said, “The high praise of Bo equals criticism of other officials,” which has created enemies.
The second eldest son of the seven children of Bo Yibo, one of a group of Communist Party officials known as the “Eight Immortals” who were purged during the Cultural Revolution for supporting open trade with the West and other capitalist-style reforms, Bo and the rest of his family were jailed and his mother was beaten to death in custody. But when Deng Xiaoping rose to power in 1978, he returned Bo Yibo to his position of vice premier. Bo Xilai thrived during his father’s tenure in Beijing, graduating from Peking University with a degree in history and then working at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a prestigious government-affiliated think tank, for his master’s degree.
Today Bo is in charge of running Chongqing, a region of more than more than 31,000 square miles and 32 million people along the Yangtze River that is the largest of China’s four provincial-level municipalities. In the fall of 2008, Bo gained national praise for the way he managed strikes by teachers, police and taxi drivers in the city as China’s economy began to contract. While other regional leaders around the country faced with similar problems treated striking workers as criminals, arresting leaders and sending in police, Bo made what was considered a radical move in China: He invited taxi driver representatives to meet with him in a forum broadcast on state television and negotiated terms for ending the strike.
And in 2009, Bo took another political gamble. He launched what he called a “Red Culture Campaign” to get people to get together and read, study and even sing about Mao Zedong’s work again. While a few scholars ridiculed the efforts, it was a hit with the masses, with hundreds of thousands showing up at the events.
Researcher Wang Juan contributed to this report.