In Chongqing, Bo Xi­lai’s sup­port en­dures

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

In this steamy metropo­lis of more than 30 mil­lion peo­ple on the banks of the Yangtze River, it doesn’t take much to find peo­ple who still talk in rev­er­en­tial terms about Bo Xi­lai, Chongqing’s in­car­cer­ated and dis­graced for­mer Com­mu­nist Party head who was re­moved from of­fice more than five years ago. By con­trast, it is dif­fi­cult to find any­one who has sim­i­lar re­gard for Sun Zheng­cai, who lost the same Chongqing party job ear­lier this month af­ter be­ing ac­cused by Bei­jing of fail­ing to rid the city of Bo’s in­flu­ence and legacy.

Peo­ple re­mem­ber Bo fondly as a can-do leader who im­proved law and or­der, turbo-charged the econ­omy, and re­ju­ve­nated di­lap­i­dated old city quar­ters. “Bo did a great job with law and or­der in the city,” said Tan Heping, one of the city’s dwin­dling num­ber of iconic bang­bang, or “stick men”, who carry loads on bam­boo poles up and down the city’s steep hill­sides. “Sun is nowhere near as im­pres­sive, he is far from what Bo Xi­lai was. I can’t see what he has done.”

Both Bo and Sun were re­moved in the months ahead of gath­er­ings of top lead­ers at the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party Na­tional Congress, which is held ev­ery five years and is where ma­jor lead­er­ship changes are rat­i­fied. Sun took over in Chongqing in Novem­ber 2012 from top party of­fi­cial Zhang De­jiang, who held the po­si­tion for just eight months af­ter Bo’s de­par­ture. At the 2012 Congress, Xi Jin­ping was con­firmed as China’s na­tional leader and at this au­tumn’s Congress he is widely ex­pected to con­sol­i­date his power by mov­ing sup­port­ers into key lead­er­ship po­si­tions, and as a re­sult have a greater say in any suc­ces­sion plan­ning.

Con­tender for the Top

The tele­genic Bo, re­garded widely as one of the most charis­matic Chi­nese politi­cians of his gen­er­a­tion, was a con­tender for the top lead­er­ship be­fore be­ing felled for cor­rup­tion in a sen­sa­tional 2012 scan­dal that also saw his wife jailed for mur­der­ing a Bri­tish busi­ness­man. Bo’s pop­u­lar­ity, ruth­lessly am­bi­tious be­hav­ior and in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic streak had been seen among top of­fi­cials at the time as a po­ten­tial threat to the cen­tral lead­er­ship.

Mar­ry­ing his overt west­ern-style re­tail politi­cian charm with a Mao-era pro­pa­ganda strat­egy, Bo had by­passed Com­mu­nist Party mes­sag­ing to build his own brand. Tap­ping into public anger at of­fi­cial cor­rup­tion, he es­poused a re­turn to sim­pler, more tra­di­tional Chi­nese val­ues, and or­ga­nized mass ral­lies of tens of thou­sands singing pa­tri­otic rev­o­lu­tion­ary-era songs amid a sea of red flags.

And with po­lice chief and right-hand man Wang Li­jun, he launched a high-pro­file cam­paign against Chongqing’s deep-rooted or­ga­nized crime rings. There are no polls to con­sult but on a re­cent trip to the city, a Reuters re­porter in­ter­viewed about a dozen peo­ple, from shop­keep­ers and la­bor­ers to coal mine own­ers and lawyers, and all of them said they were still pos­i­tive about Bo’s reign.

The Chongqing govern­ment and the State Coun­cil In­for­ma­tion Of­fice, which dou­bles as the Com­mu­nist Party’s spokesman’s of­fice, did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment for this story. “Bo was do­ing things for us or­di­nary peo­ple, things that you can see,” said Wu Hong, a cloth­ing whole­saler. To be sure, there are some in Chongqing who strongly dis­agree.

Shake­down

Li Zhuang, a Chongqing lawyer and ve­he­ment Bo critic who was jailed for two years and six months af­ter de­fend­ing sus­pected mafia bosses, said Bo and Wang’s pur­ported or­gan­ised crime sweep re­sulted in “large num­bers of un­just and false charges” and led to a shake­down of many le­git­i­mate and in­no­cent busi­ness peo­ple. Li, who was con­tacted by phone, said Sun had done noth­ing to over­turn the ver­dicts of those he be­lieves were wronged.

But for lo­cal coal boss Jin Yihu, even be­ing in­car­cer­ated at the height of Bo’s crack­down against or­ga­nized crime in 2011 has failed to dent his ad­mi­ra­tion. A dis­pute over the mine’s own­er­ship saw a busi­ness ri­val re­port Jin to po­lice, claim­ing he was a mob boss. Jin spent seven months in de­ten­tion be­fore his name was cleared. “Even then I don’t hate him,” Jin told Reuters in ref­er­ence to Bo. “To com­pare Bo and Sun is to com­pare heaven and earth.”

In what turned out to be an omi­nous sig­nal for Sun, the party’s anti-graft watch­dog, the Cen­tral Com­mis­sion for Dis­ci­pline In­spec­tion, said in Fe­bru­ary that Chongqing had failed to rid it­self of the “per­ni­cious in­flu­ence” of Bo. On Mon­day, con­firm­ing an ear­lier Reuters re­port, the com­mis­sion an­nounced that Sun had been for­mally placed un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion for “se­ri­ous vi­o­la­tions of dis­ci­pline”, a party eu­phemism that usu­ally refers to cor­rup­tion.

Bo re­ceived a life sen­tence in 2013 af­ter be­ing found guilty of bribery, abuse of power and em­bez­zle­ment. Wang was sen­tenced to 15 years in prison in 2012 on mostly sim­i­lar charges. Bo’s down­fall - and Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s tight grip on power - has seen pro­vin­cial lead­ers take a much more con­ser­va­tive ap­proach while jock­ey­ing for pro­mo­tion, lest they also be seen as po­lit­i­cal threats or step out of line.

Sun’s con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship style in Chongqing, an­a­lysts say, may have been com­pounded by a be­lief that he just needed to bide his time, stay low-key and avoid any ma­jor ac­ci­dents. But Sun’s es­o­teric sig­na­ture plan to re­zone the city into five “func­tional ar­eas” in­clud­ing an ur­ban core and eco­log­i­cal con­ser­va­tion zone, failed to res­onate with many peo­ple. “It’s im­prac­ti­cal and hol­low,” said Chongqing lawyer Zhou Li­tai.

Risk Aver­sion

Sun’s risk aver­sion was ev­i­dent in a crack­down on coal min­ing in the city af­ter a mine ex­plo­sion last Oc­to­ber killed 33 and made na­tional head­lines. The Chongqing govern­ment re­sponded by forc­ing all coal mines pro­duc­ing less than 90,000 tonnes a year to halt pro­duc­tion, clos­ing 181 mines across the city were shut­tered, ac­cord­ing to state me­dia re­ports. Pro­duc­tion re­mains halted, in­dus­try sources told Reuters.

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