x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A princeling's career in tatters: the downfall of China's flamboyant politician

Bo Xilai, a rare breed in Chinese politics, looked likely to enter the inner-circle of power before his sudden removal as the party secretary for the south-west municipality of Chongqing.

The removal of Bo Xilai, left, the strongest rebuke of a Politburo member in the past five years.
The removal of Bo Xilai, left, the strongest rebuke of a Politburo member in the past five years.

BEIJING // Bo Xilai was a rare breed in Chinese politics.

As he rose through the ranks of the Communist Party, his good looks, way with words and ability to command a room made him stand out in a political system dominated by low-key apparatchiks.

A media darling thanks to his charisma and attention-grabbing antics, Mr Bo was unashamedly ambitious, and until recently looked likely to enter the inner-circle of power by winning a place on China's supreme governing body, the Politburo standing committee.

But yesterday, just months before his expected elevation, Mr Bo's political career lay in tatters. He was removed as the party secretary for the south-west municipality of Chongqing in the fallout of a scandal that engulfed his Chongqing police chief and long-time sidekick, Wang Lijun. Mr Bo's replacement in Chongqing is Zhang Dejiang, a vice-premier.

Mr Bo's removal represents more than the downfall of modern-day China's most colourful politician, a man once described as the country's answer to American president John F Kennedy.

It also highlights the bitter factional differences within the ruling elites over how to manage the economy and its unwieldy state-owned enterprises.

Mr Bo, the 62-year-old "princeling" son of a late communist revolutionary leader, was appointed head of Chongqing, a municipality of nearly 30 million people, in late 2007. His determination to make an impact was obvious.

The former commerce minister launched a campaign of Communist Party nostalgia by encouraging the singing of "red" songs, bringing back memories of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. The authorities even sent Mao quotes as text messages to local people.

Even more controversial was his crackdown on organised crime that resulted in thousands of arrests and more than a dozen executions, including that of the municipality's justice chief, Wen Qiang, who was convicted of protecting gangs, taking bribes and rape.

The "smashing the black" initiative was popular with the public and attracted global attention. Yet it became dogged by allegations of torture and abuse of judicial process, with some analysts saying Mr Bo was more interested in clamping down on private entrepreneurs and political opponents than cleaning up the city.

Things really began to unravel for Mr Bo early last month when Mr Wang, the public security head in Chongqing who led the crackdown, fled to the US consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu in an apparent bid for asylum, after being pushed sideways into a less prominent job. Mr Wang, whom Mr Bo had brought to Chongqing, is being investigated for alleged corruption earlier in his career.

At this week's session of the National People's Congress parliament, there was intense speculation about Mr Bo's future and whether the Wang episode had destroyed his chances of promotion.

Comments on Wednesday from the premier, Wen Jiabao, that Chongqing party officials needed to reflect on recent events indicated displeasure at the highest levels.

Ultimately, Mr Bo's political downfall reflects jockeying for position between so-called conservatives and liberals, said Barry Sautman, a political analyst at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Mr Bo, with his less reform-minded economic views, was considered a conservative.

"He and some other high-level politicians want to defend the system of state-owned enterprises in China, or at least to say they should continue to have a substantial role in the Chinese economy," Mr Sautman said.

The factions are vying for supremacy ahead of the leadership transition that will begin near the end of this year when seven of the politburo's nine members retire.

The question of who may have been behind the decision to investigate Mr Wang, which in turned resulted in Mr Bo's fall from grace, has been the subject of much speculation. Mr Sautman suggested members of the so-called liberal faction may have ordered the Wang inquiry "to neuter Bo".

"The differences between these factions is not really huge, but as is often the case with factionalism, these differences are exaggerated and people get hot under the collar as to how they pursue factional struggles," he said.

Among those likely to benefit is Mr Bo's rival and predecessor as Chongqing party boss, Wang Yang, currently party chief in Guangdong province.

Mr Wang, who earned plaudits for ending a standoff last year between the authorities and residents of the southern village of Wukan over land seizures, is seen as a liberal and is among the favourites to enter the Politburo standing committee.

Yesterday it was unclear if Mr Bo retained his place on the 25-member Politburo, but beyond question, his political ambitions are over.

dbardsley@thenational.ae