Populism may be legacy of fallen Chinese leader

Apr 11, 2012, 4:12 PM

Associated Press

CHONGQING, China (AP) – Scandal-ridden politician Bo Xilai, the most senior Chinese leader to fall from power in years, remained popular even as the machinery of the all-powerful Communist Party bore down on him.

In parks and plazas across Chongqing, the inland megacity he ran the past four years, people praised him as recently as last week for his boldness in creating jobs and busting organized crime. They dismissed any excesses as no different from those of other politicians.

“Bo Xilai really did some beneficial stuff for us ordinary folks. Maybe he went a little too far, but he wasn’t afraid and got rid of a lot of bad guys,” said Zhang Zhongnan, a clothing vendor enjoying a balmy evening in downtown Liberation Monument square.

The 62-year-old Bo brought a populist touch to government that is unusual in China and irked other leaders. On Tuesday, the Communist Party leadership suspended his posts in the Politburo and Central Committee and named his wife as a suspect in a murder. The moves brought Bo closer to expulsion, possibly arrest and the likely end of his political career.

Bo’s lingering popularity may prove more difficult to break. At a time when an increasingly educated, prosperous populace is seeking a greater voice, he was a leading example of a new type of politician able to respond with media-savvy and mass appeal.

His fall provides a rare public glimpse of infighting among China’s rulers, who normally settle differences behind closed doors. The question now is whether they retreat into their old ways, or whether _ even as they purge him _ they adopt some of his more populist approaches as they seek to maintain public support for Communist Party rule.

“Bo changed perceptions about how people view their leaders. He was pretty much unique in his generation,” said a Chongqing lawyer who asked to be identified only by his surname, Wang, because his firm does business with the city government.

As President Hu Jintao and other leaders prepare to step aside later this year for a once-a-decade power transfer to younger leaders, Bo looked like someone who could mobilize disaffected Chinese and take the country in a new direction. Analysts tapped him as a leading candidate for a coveted seat on the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of party power.

Bo crafted a message and persona that was his own. His policies _ an assertive state role in the economy, more welfare for the working classes and a nostalgic communist message of collective effort to build a strong nation _ became known as the Chongqing model, and Bo promoted it. He brought in academics to write policy papers and courted the media to report on it, garnering nationwide fame and even fan videos posted on the Internet.

Then a bizarre incident about two months ago unraveled his career.

Wang Lijun, the police chief who led a popular anti-gangster campaign, showed up at the U.S. Consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu on Feb. 6, apparently seeking protection after a falling out with Bo over an investigation involving a Bo family member.

Though details were sketchy at the time, the government said this week that Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, and an orderly at their home are being investigated for homicide in the death of British businessman Neil Heywood in Chongqing in November.

With Bo on the defensive, other charges emerged, including accusations of shakedowns, the use of torture to gain confessions, selective prosecutions and a trampling of criminal procedure in the crackdown on gangsters.

Lawyer Li Zhuang was imprisoned for 1 1/2 years after being accused of helping his client fabricate a claim of torture during police interrogation _ a charge he denies. Following the accusation, Li said he was locked into an iron chair and deprived of sleep for 72 hours.

“You can fight gangsters, but that has to be done according to the law,” said Li, whose client, purported mob boss Gong Gongmo, was allegedly suspended from the ceiling by handcuffs during interrogation, after which he received a life sentence.

The son of one of Mao Zedong’s top allies, Bo is prominent among China’s “princelings” whose political pedigrees have afforded them entree to the business world and Communist Party leadership, as opposed to those such as President Hu, who come from humbler backgrounds.

His political baptism came during the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s radical experiment in class warfare. Bo led a violent Red Guard faction of high school students, targeting officials without his revolutionary pedigree. When the political winds turned, he was jailed for five years.

Bo’s Chongqing message resonated with Chinese who want a strongly authoritarian China and are critical of current leaders as being too weak and capitalist.

Worried about the influence of this new left, the leadership last week shut down some of their popular websites. On Wednesday, censors blocked searches on microblogs for “Bo Xilai” and other key names in the scandal.

Even so, the new left rallied to Bo’s defense, circumventing blocks to post messages of support and savage the leadership as sellouts to the West. “We still support the Chongqing Model with both our hands held high _ no matter to what extent it has been wiped out,” said a commentary on the Jinbushe website.

The scandals created an opening for those opposed to Bo, who was last seen on March 14, one day before it was announced he had been removed as Chongqing party secretary.

The scandals have proven a “God-sent opportunity for the new leadership,” said Warren Sun, an expert on the Chinese leadership at Australia’s Monash University. “By removing such a destabilizing element, the succession process should be less bumpy and less uncertain.”

Bo’s imprint, however, is already apparent. Other younger leaders are also associating themselves with different approaches to government. Wang Yang, Bo’s predecessor in Chongqing who now runs the southern industrial powerhouse of Guangdong province, has promoted a “Guangdong model” that allows for a greater role for civil society and private enterprise.

In Chongqing, authorities have tried to tone-down, if not completely stamp-out, one of Bo’s initiatives, a “sing red songs” drive that promotes organized singing of Mao-era propaganda songs.

A visit last week to Shapingba Park on Chongqing’s western edge, which had become a favorite meeting place with sign boards designating where each choir met, found some boards vandalized, the names of commercial sponsors torn from them.

A few elderly residents still gathered to sing along with two-stringed Chinese fiddles.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Populism may be legacy of fallen Chinese leader