New generation ... crusading Chongqing politician Bo Xilai.

New generation ... crusading Chongqing politician Bo Xilai. Photo: Getty Images

A maverick politician is taking on the Chinese mafia as he tries to restore the People's Republic's communist roots, writes John Garnaut in Chongqing.

Wang Li started feeling edgy when her mother wasn't home by tea. She called her mother's mobile phone and the voice on the other end sounded calm and reassuring but still she jumped in her maroon Mercedes-Benz and sped through the winding Chongqing streets to find her.

Wang's mother, Chen Meirong, had traded her bus conductor's job for a taxi, then a clothes shop and a restaurant, and had now taken the leap into real estate.

Wang parked at the Daisi Hotel and strode through the revolving doors, where she found her mother surrounded by 30 muscular men all dressed in black. They sported shaved heads or crew cuts and addressed each other as ''Big Brother''.

Restoration of the People's Republic's communist roots is kicking off in Chongqing.

Restoration of the People's Republic's communist roots is kicking off in Chongqing.

On the table was a contract to transfer Chen's 220 million yuan ($30 million) tract of land over to the government-owned Chongqing International Trust Co, which Chen had spent 10 hours refusing to sign. Chen turned to her daughter with what she thought was perfect composure and told her to go home ahead of her because their business remained unfinished.

But Wang grabbed her mother's wrist, sent a table of tea cups flying and yelled as hard and as high-pitched as her body would allow: ''If there is a dispute we can solve it later because YOU HAVE TO LET HER EAT!''

And Wang marched her mother back out the revolving doors to safety.

Welcome to Chongqing circa February 2008, the booming Yangtze River metropolis where government-mafia collusion opened the door for China's maverick-princeling politician Bo Xilai to make his stand. Bo did not stop Chen's business being stolen from her but two of the shaved-headed men who bailed her up in that hotel lobby, Chen Kun-zhi and Yang Yun, are among the 4000 mobsters and official patrons Bo has thrown in jail.

With equal audacity, Bo revived the revolutionary iconography and techniques of mass mobilisation that had been dormant since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. He sent 200,000 officials ''down to the countryside'' to learn from the people, in a tribute to what Mao had done before him. He channelled billions of dollars into ostensibly socialist housing programs and even banned commercial advertising on his city's television station and filled it with 24-hour ''red'' revolutionary programming.

Bo's amorphous ''Chongqing model'', as it is now known, is popular as well as polarising. Bo is now the poster-boy for China's resurgent new left while his strongman methods are an object of despair among many on the liberal right.

In short, Bo lit a virtual bomb beneath a colourless, consensus-driven Communist Party that faces ever-growing social tensions and is struggling to articulate a rationale for its continued dictatorship.

Wang Kang, a Chongqing intellectual who is steeped in Communist Party history as well as China's ancient classics, believes even the actors are not fully aware of the ancient dynastic forces that are at play on Bo Xilai's political stage.

''All through Chinese history, power has been transmitted down through bloodlines,'' says Kang. ''Bo has extraordinary capabilities and is not just representing his father, Bo Yibo, who made a special contribution to the revolution, but his father's generation.''

Wang says the President, Hu Jintao, will soon disappear from history and China's princelings, the children of the communist revolution, are moving now to fill that void.

The Bo Xilai performance - whether nation-changing or colourful sideshow - reached a new peak when Bo's ''sing Red'' campaign was taken up across the country for the party's recent 90th birthday celebrations. Sections of the national bureaucracy were temporarily paralysed while officials were drafted into singing paeans to Mao.

But there are also signs that the Bo Xilai phenomenon is struggling to maintain momentum as next year's crucial 18th party congress, and modern Chinese reality, draws nearer.

Waves of public pressure led Bo's security apparatus to drop a controversial court cases against the Beijing lawyer Li Zhuang, who had dared to defend gangsters in his city. Netizens were up in arms again when Bo sent an internet critic to a year's ''labour reform'' for posting a derogatory remark.

Bo's ''Red Channel'', which started with such fanfare, now suffers random programming interruptions and has tumbled down the ratings charts, after being deprived of advertising revenue.

Even Yang Fan, the co-author of Chongqing Model, which is on prominent display in the city's bookstores, is having second thoughts.

''His program should include democracy, rule of law, market economy but now it is too close to the old left and new left and the Cultural Revolution,'' says Yang, an economics professor at China University of Political Science and Law.

Yang's U-turn from booster to critic is significant. He was a student at Beijing's elite No. 4 Middle School, where he watched several ''princeling'' classmates hounded out of school as their parents were purged, humiliated and even destroyed during Mao's rolling campaigns. One of his close classmates was the younger brother of Bo Xilai.

Bo's father, Bo Yibo, one of the country's top leaders, was arrested and mercilessly beaten during the Cultural Revolution. Tragically, his mother committed ''suicide'', to use the official term - frequently a euphemism for murder.

Yang recited a seven-character Chinese aphorism: a daughter-in law suffers for years at the hands of her mother-in law until becoming one herself.

''Maybe Bo has this psychology and is becoming a mini-Mao,'' Yang says. ''Bo shouldn't sacrifice China's future for his own ambition & Bo's problems in Chongqing will be exposed and it will become chaotic.''

And now Bo's most popular campaign, against the local mafia, may be reaching its natural limits before any satisfying resolution.

The headquarters of Chongqing International Trust Co, known locally as Guotou, is a faux colonial-era building in this crowded city's busiest intersection, on the corner of Peace and People Power roads.

The company is ostensibly owned and controlled by the Chongqing city government, although customers and anonymous internet reports claim a majority of shares are in the hands of the chief executive, Weng Zhenjie, a graduate from the PLA Telecommunications Academy, who occupies an expansive office on the building's 10th floor.

A retired Guotou official, who has combed through the company's reports, told The Sun-Herald he reported Weng's dealings to the national securities regulator - including along with the assertion that most of the company's income was illegal.

One victim of mafia-backed financial thuggery, a property developer called Zhang Mingyu, has filed multiple complaints about Weng in Beijing and Chongqing. He wants the mayor of Chongqing, Huang Qifan, to know that he is in Beijing, working on his case, and hopes Huang is working on it, too.

Zhang has hired a prominent lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, as back-up in case he gets arrested. Pu says it's not yet time for Zhang to sue to get his property back but it it may be soon, when Chongqing politics begin to shift and other victims come out of the woodwork.

When Chen Meirong was rescued by her daughter from the lobby of the Daisi Hotel she went straight home and wrote her will.

Her daughter, Wang Li, is a single mother, like her mother and her grandmother. She had kept house for the family and cared for her six younger siblings since she was old enough to cook. She did the shopping, even bought her mother's clothes, while Chen worked all day and most of the night building their modest business.

Guotou went on to steal her property development, now worth perhaps 500 million yuan and left her with only debts to her workers and suppliers. Chen suffered a breakdown, spending eight months in and out of hospital, so her poised and headstrong daughter took control of business.

''I had thought my mother was strong, so strong that she could solve any problem, but I felt this time she had lost her way,'' says Wang. ''We had to get the money back to our suppliers who had helped us in the past.''

Wang repeatedly tried to contact management at Guotou even if only to confirm that the company had swindled them, to no avail.

''I wasn't scared, I wasn't emotional, I just felt I must meet the Guotou leaders today and be prepared if they refused.''

Wang picked up a container of petrol and drove down People Power Road. Her mother called. Wang's voice was calm and she told her mother she wasn't doing anything. But Chen clambered out of her hospital bed and followed her down the road.

Wang's maroon Mercedes pulled up outside the great double doors of Guotou headquarters and she strode through the marble atrium, underneath the chandelier and past the screens where an elevator would be waiting to take her to Weng Zhenjie's office.

Security guards fanned in front of her, so she doused herself with petrol and demanded they let her through. Then police bowled through the door, at the same time as her mother, Chen, and they tackled the lighter from her hand.

Wang has been released from 12 months' detention after being sentenced without trial for disturbing public order. The family never got its money back but life is returning to normal.

''The police now come within three minutes when ordinary people call,'' says Wang approvingly, pointing to the police cars outside the Guotou offices on People Power Road. ''Before Bo Xilai arrived they would never come at all.''