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Updated: November 7, 2012 16:13 IST

Was Bo Xilai too “red” for CPC’s comfort?

Ananth Krishnan
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The Red Guards memorial cemetery in Chongqing. Photo: Ananth Krishnan
Photo : Ananth Krishnan The Red Guards memorial cemetery in Chongqing. Photo: Ananth Krishnan

His style threatened the political system

In a quiet corner of Shaping Park lies a patch of earth, hidden by trees and rocks, that is an uncomfortable reminder of this city’s turbulent history — and trouble in more recent past.

Behind rusted, padlocked gates stand tombs and memorials of more than 100 Red Guards, young foot soldiers of Mao Zedong who lost their lives in the early years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

The cemetery is, according to local historians, China’s only nationally recognised and protected site that commemorates a violent chapter in the nation’s history that the Communist Party of China (CPC) has sought to bury, and is still reluctant to confront.

But when Bo Xilai, a “princeling” of the Party aristocracy and charismatic member of the Politburo was posted to serve in this teeming metropolis in 2007, he embarked on a grab for power that not only forced the CPC to confront that difficult part of its history but also threatened a political system by questioning a fragile consensus it has sought to preserve.

Mr. Bo was on Friday expelled from the CPC, and will face criminal charges in coming months for bribery, abuse of power and corruption.

He was sacked as Chongqing Party Secretary in March after his former police chief fled to a United States Consulate in nearby Chengdu with evidence of the role of Mr. Bo’s wife in the death of Neil Heywood, a British business associate of the Bo family.

The Politburo statement on Friday painted a picture of Mr. Bo as a corrupt official who took “huge bribes”, amassed a fortune for his family and had a string of mistresses. But the real reason for the heavy punishment Mr. Bo is likely to face, say Party insiders, officials and scholars in Chongqing, is not related to financial misdemeanours — many officials in today’s China may perhaps be guilty of them. His crime, they say, is far more serious: he challenged the rules of the system in an ambitious quest for power.

Chongqing, a sprawling municipality of 32 million that sits on the Yangtze River, served as the platform for Mr. Bo to launch a bid to secure a position on China’s highest ruling body. Mr. Bo claimed to have established a “Chongqing model” of growth — a vision, he said, of China’s future — which was premised on tackling corruption and widening social welfare.

In speeches, Mr. Bo railed at the spread of corruption – he jailed 1,500 officials in a rapid “smash the black” campaign – and rising inequalities in today’s China.

“What he was doing was implicitly criticising the central government, even though the ‘Chongqing model’ was funded by transfer of payments from Beijing,” said a Chongqing government official, requesting anonymity.

Chongqing was established as a municipality directly administered by the central government in 1997 - Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai are the only cities with similar status. “This annoyed many in the central government,” the official said. "They were funding his ambitions.”

Mr. Bo was seen as openly campaigning for a seat on the Standing Committee that will come into power this year. He broke the consensus within the party of leaders keeping a low-profile and following the direction of Beijing by establishing himself as a neo-Maoist populist.

He had ‘Red texts’ of Mao’s sayings sent to the mobile phones of residents and organised mass rallies for singing ‘Red songs’.

Mr. Bo’s invocation of a troubled episode in the CPC’s history appeared to anger many in the Party. A day before Mr. Bo’s sacking in March, Premier Wen Jiabao said the Party had at its third plenum in 1978 taken a decision on “correct handling of relevant historical issues”.

The scandal surrounding Heywood allowed Mr. Wen and other officials — wary of Mr. Bo’s ambitions — to purge him, despite the wide support he enjoyed among allies of his late father, Bo Yibo, who was once an influential leader.

Mr. Bo, however, is still popular in Chongqing for his policies, such as the building of 39 public housing projects and expanding welfare for migrant workers.

Unlike in other Chinese cities, migrant workers who are employed in the city for one year and students are eligible to apply for low-income housing in Chongqing. “He did a lot for Chongqing, the city was made a lot safer,” said one student at Chongqing University. “We don’t want the city to go back to how it was before.”

He Shu, a Chongqing historian of the Cultural Revolution, was among many who were uncomfortable about some aspects of Mr. Bo’s populism and strong rule.

“We are becoming a more progressive society, a society of laws,” he said. “We will never have another Mao, a populist leader who everyone was forced to listen to. In Chongqing, Bo Xilai may have had some similarities with him,” he added, “but he failed”.

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