Bo Xilai: China's brash populist
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - Bo Xilai has personality, charm and charisma, unlike most of his plodding, lackluster bureaucratic brethren.

The tall, telegenic Bo has won the support not only of the legions of dark-suited, dull apparatchiks who converged on Beijing for the recently concluded session of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), but also ordinary citizens. His crusade against corruption in the sprawling southwestern municipality of Chongqing, where he is Communist Party chief, is much admired and he is a force to be reckoned with.

The son of Bo Yibo - one of the party's "eight immortals'' - Bo is an envied member of China's so-called "princeling" class, the


children of the 1949 Maoist revolutionaries, which includes Vice President Xi Jinping and is not noted for its empathy with the common people. Now 60 and a politburo member, Bo cut his political teeth in the 1990s as mayor of Dalian in northeastern Liaoning province and became the province's governor before taking over as the nation's commerce minister in 2004. Three years later he was moved to the Chongqing party post to start a battle with triad bosses and their lackeys in the police department and government offices.

While his Chongqing appointment was technically a promotion it also shifted the irrepressible Bo out of the national spotlight and seemed to spell the end to his quest to enter the rarefied realm of China's elite leadership team. In a country where crime and corruption are rampant, however, his campaign in the gangland capital of China struck a national chord which he hoped to play to the hilt at the NPC and CPPCC meeting.

The good-looking Bo has always been popular, but his all-out war on organized crime and political corruption in Chongqing gave him rock-star status in the south-western megacity of more than 30 million people, while also fueling his ambition to enter the top echelon of China's fifth generation of political leadership. Many analysts believe he has his eye set on gaining a seat on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee at the 18th party congress in 2012, when as many as seven of the current committee's nine members may be replaced.

Asked by a Taiwanese reporter in Beijing last week whether the mafia crackdown was paving the way for the standing committee, an apparently irritated Bo responded, "We are here to discuss the government work report delivered by Premier Wen Jiabao. This isn't an appropriate occasion for making a show."

While an otherwise fawning foreign media followed his every move at the NPC, quoting him freely, China's top leaders did not deign to acknowledge him during this year's gathering of the faithful. Why?

On the surface, Bo's war on crime and corruption should be welcomed by the leadership. At least on paper, fighting triads and bad apples in the party is a top priorities. But Bo's naked ambition and appeal clearly scare the party elite. And so might his frontal attacks on corruption.

Indeed, Bo, who trained as a journalist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has created a personality cult in Chongqing that some critics say harkens back to Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution (1966 and 1976). He has even claimed Mao as his spiritual mentor, mass texting the Great Helmsman's epigrammatic quotations, including "What really counts in the world is conscientiousness", to millions of mobile phone users and leading party meetings in the singing of revolutionary songs. He appears to be going over the heads of the political elite and appealing directly to the people to advance his political ambitions.
Now Chinese netizens are writing heroic songs about Bo. One music video widely distributed on the Internet waxes lyrically:
Your eyes are like a pair of swords flickering cold light.
You stand firm in the face of the evil.
Corruption and darkness are pierced.
The corrupt shudder at the very mention of your name.
Mob-busting party secretary is the best title the people give you
You take people's safety on your shoulders
You crush the crimes with iron hand
You make Chongqing a safe and peaceful city
So people know that they have someone to count on
Bo Xilai, Bo Xilai
You are a peacetime hero
Such mass appeal may represent a threat to traditional politicians such as President Hu Jintao, a paragon of competent, bureaucratic dullness. Premier Wen Jiabao, who described himself as "Grandpa Wen" during his visit to Sichuan in the wake of the devastating earthquake that shook the province in 2008, is noted in the official media for his populist image, but that is more rhetoric than reality.

Hu, Wen and the rest of the Politburo Standing Committee have played the game the way they thought it was supposed to be played - dressed in dark suits and gathered in backrooms negotiating private deals that quietly decide the future of 1.3 billion people.

Bo's penchant for demagoguery surely rubs them the wrong way. His anti-graft drive in Chongqing, for example, has been a prolonged exercise in brashness and flamboyance that cuts against the grain of politics as usual. Wary of the social chaos created by Mao's personality cult, Chinese leaders tend to be studies in stoical reserve.

Not Bo. For the past nine months, he has turned Chongqing upside down in China's biggest crackdown on crime and corruption in recent memory - bringing to book many of the mobsters who once held sway in Chongqing, as well as local police and politicians who grew fat on the bribes they took to look the other way.

And Bo has been his own biggest cheerleader in this intense effort, which has led to more than 3,000 arrests and prompted calls for an equally vigorous nationwide anti-corruption sweep. Nine people, including triad bosses and a police officer, have been sentenced to death as a result of the campaign, and 87 Chongqing officials stand accused of colluding with organized crime, including the city's former police and justice chief, Wen Qiang.

Wen is the brother-in-law of another high-profile bust on Bo's hit list, Xie Caiping, more popularly known as "Godmother" among Chongqing's gangster class.

Chongqing and its neighboring metropolis Chengdu count as an emerging engine for China's economy, drawing international investment over the past decade thanks to the "Go West" policy to open up the vast region to development. The city is one of China's four biggest automobile manufacturing bases and one of the largest iron and steel and aluminum production centers.

The creation of a twin-city special economic zone in 2007 helped US giant Hewlett-Packard make Chongqing home for its 20 million laptop program and brought in another US giant. Intel, which moved its assembly and test plants from Shanghai to Chengdu at the end of 2009. In a sense, the zone can be regarded as the first place in China in which Hu's mantra of "building a harmonious society" has been put into practice.

While Bo's cleansing orgy in Chongqing has played well with the masses, it has caused alarm among the party elite. First and foremost, of course, how does it look for Hu and Wen when a local party boss appears to be outperforming the president and premier in the battle against corruption? And what about Bo's predecessors in Chongqing - He Guoqiang, already a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, and Wang Yang, now the party's leader in the economic powerhouse southern province of Guangdong? By implication, the rampant crime and corruption Bo has uncovered in Chongqing exposes what they left behind.

In the end, Bo's Chongqing purge has been as much a mass political campaign - a la Mao - as an anti-corruption drive, with some of the same signs of excessive zeal and punishment.

Lawyers in Chongqing are now afraid to defend the accused after one of their own, Li Zhuang, was given an 18-month jail sentence for his efforts. Before his imprisonment, Li was representing a triad boss who testified in court that he was tortured by police. Li was found guilty of encouraging the gangster to commit perjury. Li initially confessed to the crime but later withdrew his confession, claiming the prosecution had promised him a suspended sentence for his admission of guilt.

Once Bo's headline-grabbing campaign ends it is doubtful there will also be an end to crime and corruption in Chongqing. But the upheaval of change it has generated in the police department, the judiciary and the party bureaucracy guarantees that Bo loyalists will now be running the municipality.

Current Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun was brought in from Bo's old stomping ground of Liaoning, and rumors are rife that more loyalist Liaoning imports are on their way. That should make Bo even more popular and powerful in Chongqing as he looks to pluck a plum political appointment in 2012; it's also good for business.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at