Polit Bureau member Bo Xilai, whose future has been under a cloud following his absence at a Thursday parliamentary session amid a corruption investigation targeting his once-close associate, on Friday admitted he had made mistakes in “appointing the wrong man” in rare comments on a political scandal that has gripped China.
Mr. Bo, the Communist Party of China (CPC) chief in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing and a politician widely seen as a key figure among the next generation of the leadership, also underscored his national ambitions in a one-off interaction with journalists by highlighting the success of Chongqing’s economic model in addressing imbalances, even as he warned that income inequality in the rest of the country was reaching dire proportions.
Mr. Bo had been tipped to ascend to the powerful nine-member Polit Bureau Standing Committee as a new leadership takes over later this year. His future has, however, been cast in doubt in recent weeks after his right-hand man, Wang Lijun, Chongqing’s former police chief, showed up at the United States Consulate in Chengdu reportedly seeking asylum.
Reports said Mr. Wang, who helped Mr. Bo implement a nationally-famous corruption crackdown that brought down some 1,500 officials, was himself the target of a corruption investigation by central authorities.
In his first comments on the case, which has been the focus of attention for the Chinese media in recent days even overshadowing the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) or parliament, Mr. Bo admitted he had “made a mistake” in being negligent and choosing the wrong man.
“The government should not make the same mistake again,” he said, but stressed that he himself was not being investigated and that the Chongqing government would assist central authorities in the case.
He also played down Mr. Wang’s role in the Chongqing corruption crackdown. “Wang Lijun played only a small role in cracking down on gangsters, because it is was a joint effort by many people and many government departments,” he said. “He was dubbed a hero by the media, but that title was not given by the government.” Mr. Wang’s fall would not detract from the praise Chongqing had won for battling corruption.
“We cannot say because one person, Wang Lijun, is bad that all the officers under him are bad. I am confident that all the other police officers are good people.”
“When you ask anyone in the street in Chongqing about the fight against black society [mafia],” he added, “they will say the government has achieved a lot in cracking down on corruption here.”
Friday’s was Mr. Bo’s highest-profile public appearance following the Wang Lijun episode. While Mr. Bo attended the NPC’s opening session last weekend, he was the only one of the Polit Bureau’s 25 members absent at a plenary session on Thursday, reigniting speculation about his future.
He told reporters his absence was because he “had a cough and was feeling unwell”, although he did not appear to show any signs of illness or fatigue on Friday. Mr. Bo spoke for almost two hours, answering questions from the small group of journalists allowed to sit in on the Chongqing delegation’s meeting. Dressed in a suit and yellow tie, Mr. Bo sat with his leg crossed and appeared relaxed. He spoke forcefully, and only left the room on one occasion “to take an important telephone call”, he said.
Mr. Bo, who is the son of one of the CPC’s most famous revolutionary leaders, Bo Yibo, is part of a group of increasingly influential second-generation party leaders, dubbed here as the “princelings”.
Vice President Xi Jinping, the anointed successor of President Hu Jintao, is another princeling leader whose father Xi Zhongxun was, long with Bo Yibo, among a group of eight influential “immortal” leaders.
Mr. Bo did not directly reply to questions about his political future and whether or not he would, as many expected before the recent political drama, be appointed to the nine-member Polit Bureau Standing Committee at the 18th Party Congress later this year. “We will prepare for the 18th Party Congress by focusing on Chongqing’s development,” he said. “Other issues are not relevant.”
He did hint at his national ambitions by extolling the virtues of Chongqing’s economic model, which has won praise among China’s Left for its focus on social welfare.
Mr. Bo said China’s Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, had exceeded 0.46 , beyond the 0.4 mark seen as a trigger for social unrest. “In the beginning of the People’s Republic, Mao said we must build a Socialist country and not only allow a few people to become rich,” he said.
“If only a small group of people become rich,” he added, “we will become a Capitalist society. That will take us down a wrong road. The basic political belief in Chongqing is for people to become wealthy together, so that this will also reduce the cost of maintaining stability. Narrowing the gap between rich and poor is a fundamental element in socialism.”
He said the GDP per capita in Chongqing had risen by $ 1,000 every year, from $ 3,000 in 2009 to $ 5,000 last year. The municipality had also reformed household registration restrictions, which deny China’s more than 200 million migrant workers access to social security when they move to cities.
Chongqing had given between 3 and 4 million rural migrants urban residential status. “We have solved housing and education problems with this reform,” he said, pointing out that the city had opened 110,000 low-income housing apartments last year and would add another 150,000 in the coming year.
Mr. Bo’s rise, which has won him popularity among many on China’s Left, has also brought him criticism. His campaigns to bring back Mao-inspired “Red culture” by organising the singing of Red songs and sending students to work in the countryside have been seen by many as a distasteful invocation of the disastrous populism of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
On Friday, Mr. Bo also responded to criticism that questioned his family’s wealth even as he has positioned himself as a campaigner for equality.
“Some in the media have said my son drives a red Ferrari,” he said. That is simply not true. Others have asked where he got the money to go to Oxford. I would like to state,” he added, “he was on a scholarship.”