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December 6, 2011

The new face of China?

The email, from a former high-ranking European diplomat to China, was curt: "We won't be able to talk by phone," he wrote.

In other words, because I was in Beijing, he feared that our conversation would be monitored, placing him at risk. Assurances that I would use a secure line were for naught. I never heard from him again.

That’s how things go when you research—or attempt to research—a Chinese leader. In a country where even the most mundane details about top officials are deemed state secrets, anything political becomes “sensitive.” Even if you’re not Chinese, chatting about them is dangerous. There are careers to consider, visas to obtain, money to be made.

I had contacted the diplomat to discuss Bo Xilai, the limelight-seeking Communist Party Secretary of Chongqing, the world’s fastest growing city—a foggy, smoggy, heaving metropolis of over 30m people located in southwestern China.

It shouldn’t have been such a maddening endeavour. In an age when officials do their best to camouflage themselves in the shadows of China’s political bureaucracy, Bo is fluorescent.

Combined with his pedigree as “princeling”— the offspring of one of China’s revolutionary founding fathers—Bo traffics in the sort of personal politics that are standard for campaigns in the west. And make no mistake; it is a campaign—with Chongqing serving as his operational headquarters.

Like a Communist disciple of the American political operative Karl Rove, Bo has crafted a rare brand of populism. His aim is to clinch one of at least seven spots expected to open up on the Politburo Standing Committee, the government’s omnipotent nine-member cabinet, during the power shuffle of China’s central leadership that begins next year. He may just get his wish.

The party is frantically debating how to evolve as it considers potential members of the Committee to replace those who have reached either the retirement age of 68 or the constitutional term limits. After two terms as president, Hu Jintao will step down, with current vice-president Xi Jinping very likely to take up his job.

The challenge for the future top brass will be to advance China’s rise while controlling growing economic inequality and popular fury over corruption.

Amid the search, Bo has emerged as a persuasive champion of China’s “new left” conservatives who argue that a return to true socialist policies and more state economic control can better address the country’s ills, thus reinforcing the party’s legitimacy. Their opponents are the comparably liberal leaders who advocate greater economic and political reform as the only way to avoid an internal crisis.

As boss of Chongqing, Bo has prepared for the looming power battle by courting respect from both the rulers and the ruled, arguing that success should be measured by more than just development, long considered the holy grail of national progress. “It’s not about how many tall buildings you have, it’s how happy people are,” he told Chongqing party members in 2009. Chinese leaders use that kind of benevolent language a lot these days.

Last year, Chongqing was named China’s happiest city. Its slogan is “Everybody’s Chongqing,” which according to the state-run media means, “all of Chongqing’s people are united in building the city and everybody will live a happy life.” Measure this rhetoric against reality—thousands of people in Chongqing and millions more across China have watched as bulldozers crushed their homes, only to face beatings or detention if they protest—and official compassion seems rather less authentic.

Yet no other modern Chinese leader has cast such a spell over the country as Bo Xilai, a master at manufacturing consent. To ensure that he remains a driving force in Chinese politics from his perch atop the city, Bo has built a personal brand that shimmers, depending on the season, with hues of Clint Eastwood’s take-no-prisoners justice, George Clooney’s swagger and L Ron Hubbard’s religious zeal, smothered in dollops of patriotic flare.

In addition to funnelling state profits into major urban infrastructure projects, he has crushed Chongqing’s entrenched underworld and resurrected the jingoistic wraith of Mao Zedong to convert the city’s grumbling wage-earners into would-be martyrs for the party. These accomplishments give conservatives significant ammunition as they lobby for his selection, but his tactics have also alarmed party veterans.

In China, jockeying for power takes place behind the scenes in an effort to present a unified front to the public. Bo, however, has staked out his own approach, dazzling his allies and unnerving his rivals with television-friendly governance. In recent years, he has invited taxi drivers on strike to meet him on live TV, allowed the news media into the trials of alleged mafia bosses and celebrated the Chinese Communist party’s 90th anniversary by leading 100,000 people through a revolutionary repertoire at a Chongqing sports stadium.

In short, he has transformed Chinese politics by giving the people a face to cheer for. But therein lies the risk.

“That’s what’s drawing attention,” says Joseph Fewsmith, a China expert at Boston University. “Chinese officials don’t normally appear in public like western politicians, out there campaigning and flogging an agenda.”

At 62, Bo is about as dapper as a Chinese leader can be. He favours dark suits, ink-black hair and silk ties—the standard image of Chinese officialdom. But that is where the similarities end.

Where his counterparts have perfected the expressionless public mask, Bo’s eyes glitter mischievously when he smiles. The charm belies a hardnosed strategist who checkmates his opponents even as he toasts them. Asked by an American diplomat whether he surfed the web, Bo called it “a waste of time,” insisting on a preference for Chinese classics like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

More than 480m Chinese have access to the internet, on which Bo has become something of a celebrity. Yet those who know Bo either won’t talk, or gush platitudes that mirror the tone of his state-sanctioned hagiography. Bo, who won’t speak to the foreign media, did not respond to interview requests.

He has no need—the domestic media functions as his official cheerleader. A recent profile in one party publication was titled, “What a handsome Party Secretary Bo Xilai.” After praising his good looks and “scholarly air,” the piece summed up his accomplishments: “People say he’s good looking. But for an official, if he does his work stylishly and boldly, then that is really handsome.”

China has no effective opposition and academics hew to the official script. Newspaper editors take their cues from the Propaganda Ministry. Even sarcasm is considered subversive. Earlier this year local authorities sentenced a Chongqing resident to one year of “re-education through labour” for “fabricating facts and disturbing public order,” after the man posted crude jokes about Bo online. One Chongqing journalist who had agreed to meet me begged off when he learned the topic of my enquiries.

Much of Bo’s authority flows from his pedigree. Born in 1949, he is the son of Bo Yibo, one of China’s “Eight Immortals,” the elite party leaders who survived the Long March, the punishing retreat from nationalist forces during China’s civil war.

According to his official biography, the teenage Bo did manual labour in a “study class” during the Cultural Revolution, the decade of madness unleashed by Mao in 1966.

Leap Forward, Mao’s disastrous attempt rapidly to industrialise the country a few years earlier. When his minions tried to oust him, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in an effort to purge his political opponents, setting the nation’s youth against any perceived enemies. Countless teachers, artists and intellectuals were tortured or murdered by young Red Guards who split into factions as they competed in their fealty to Mao.

During those years, Bo Xilai’s father was persecuted and imprisoned for challenging Mao’s stewardship. His mother was beaten to death. As a teenager Bo Xilai joined with other children of previously unassailable leaders to form a group called “United Action.” The group was known for parading their victims on flatbed trucks to the beat of large brass drums.

“Bo was in the worst element of the Red Guards,” an elderly party insider, who knew Mao and Bo Yibo, told me. “They were like young stormtroopers.” The group was eventually disbanded in 1968. As is widely reported, Bo was locked up, though the exact nature of the charges—as with so much else in the Cultural Revolution—is not recorded.

Mao’s death ended that national nightmare, but there was no truth or reconciliation, no attempt to heal the wounds. In the era of “Reform and Opening Up” that accompanied the tenure of Deng Xiaoping, the party embraced economic reform and hoped prosperity would lull its people into mass amnesia. Analysts say Bo learned an important lesson from Mao’s status as a cult leader: true power, he came to understand, comes not just from connections at the top but from support at the bottom.

During the era of economic reform that began in the late 1970s, Bo Yibo was rehabilitated and reinstated as vice premier. Perhaps in an effort to insulate himself from accusations of nepotism, Bo Xilai worked at a hardware plant for two years. At a time when few young people had the chance to go to college, Bo then attended Beijing’s prestigious Peking University (as it calls itself in English) to study world history. After graduating, he obtained a masters degree in journalism from the Chinese academy of social sciences, a government think tank. But Bo felt he needed to go farther afield to make his way in public life.

The city of Dalian lies on a peninsula that juts out into the Yellow Sea, across from North Korea. Once a bustling port controlled by the Russians and then by the Japanese, its factories closed during the Cultural Revolution as all trade with the outside world ceased. In the mid-1980s, Bo landed a mid-level government job in Dalian, just as the gritty industrial hub was emerging from years of decline.

During his 20 years in the northeast, Bo quickly rose through the ranks, becoming Dalian’s mayor, and then provincial party chief of Liaoning Province. His leadership coincided with a remarkable transformation that saw Dalian turn from a model of state-run dysfunction to one of China’s more prosperous and environmentally friendly cities. To this day, some citizens still refer the city’s generous swaths of greenery as “Bo grass.” Dalian’s success became synonymous with Bo, a strategy he replicated, with stunning results, in Chongqing. With these accomplishments came acclaim, power and some criticism.

Jiang Weiping, a journalist, was the northeast bureau chief for Wenweipo, a pro-party tabloid. In the 1990s, China’s northeast was booming, its prosperity fuelled by vast deposits of petroleum, iron and coal. The boom made a few select men breathtakingly rich. Shrouded in a Dickensian soot, Dalian was a riot of neon-lit karaoke bars, cheap prostitutes and greedy officials. The region was also racked by violence as tycoons and corrupt bureaucrats vied for riches. Bribery, kidnappings and contract killings were common. Arrests were not.

In 1999 Jiang embarked on a series of exposés about the dark side of the boom. When no mainland media outlet would publish his reports, he approached Frontline, an independent Hong Kong magazine that ran the articles under a pseudonym.

Jiang’s articles revealed how dozens of high-ranking party officials had allegedly profited from a stock scam involving a shady petrochemical company (the company’s board chairman was later murdered). He recounted the extravagant tastes of a top official in Daqing, a city in Heilongjiang Province, who, it was claimed, had bought a flat and car for each of his 29 mistresses. Separate reporting by Jiang described property deals involving Bo’s wife, which led to Bo’s falling out with a local paper, the Dalian Daily.

In December 2000, shortly after the articles appeared and Bo was promoted to governor of Liaoning Province, Jiang Weiping was taken into custody. Held at a naval base for 45 days, he says he was denied food, kept awake and tortured until he confessed to writing for “a foreign organisation hostile to China.” Unable to visit her husband, Jiang’s wife hired a lawyer, but the day after agreeing to take on the case, the lawyer was arrested and charged with tax fraud. During the secret trial of Jiang that took place a year after his arrest, he was convicted of “supplying state secrets to illegal foreign organisations” and “inciting subversion of political authority.” For the next six years he lived in a foul prison cell and was fed only rotten corn and bananas.

Now living in exile in Canada, Jiang is disturbed by Bo’s rise but not surprised. “Bo Xilai is like a double-edged sword,” he said, speaking from his home in Toronto. “On one side is the gentleman who speaks elegantly for the people, but the other is a ruthless man who will do whatever he must to win.”

Bo’s personal tastes are far less conservative than his politics. At cocktail parties in Beijing, western diplomats trade tales about his love of luxury cars, particularly Jaguars. And while he may be a champion of all things Chinese, his son, Bo Guagua, attended Harrow and then Oxford. These days the son is pursuing a master’s degree at Harvard.

Bo Xilai might once have been labelled a “running dog of the west,” but times have changed. Lacking any cogent ideology, the party has fed its people a rich diet of bourgeois socialist hypocrisy, and Bo knows how to make it sound irresistible. “An energetic salesman,” is how American diplomats described him in a classified cable released by Wikileaks earlier this year.

After a three-year spell as commerce minister between 2004 and 2007, where he presided over China’s ascension to the status of world’s second largest exporter, Bo was made a member of China’s elite Central Politburo (second only in power to the Politburo Standing Committee). Party insiders say he had set his sights on the post of vice premier, but instead he was sent to Chongqing, the gateway to western China and a critical area for fostering growth in the country’s long-neglected interior.

Chongqing clings to the surrounding cliffs like a mass of gleaming barnacles. Driving into the urban core one October evening, I passed miles of new high-rises, most still uninhabited, their dark silhouettes climbing towards the full moon. Along the river, green laser lights positioned on office roofs crawled across the clouds like beacons calling out to a masked crimefighter.

During his term as boss of Chongqing, the city has experienced extravagant growth, with economic output from January to September reaching £69bn, a 16.5 per cent increase on last year—the highest growth rate in China and nearly double the national rate.

Earlier this year, a freight railway was opened, linking the city to Antwerp in Belgium, cutting trade transport time to Europe from 40 days to 15. Taking a page from his Dalian playbook, Bo has sought to improve quality of life in ways that can be felt by the people while satisfying the mandarins in Beijing. Across the metropolis, billboards promise planned utopias—among them green Chongqing, safe Chongqing, healthy Chongqing.

Earlier this year, he announced a plan to build affordable housing for 2.4m residents, while the city’s first subway line opened in September, with two more on the way.

Once Bo had settled into his new job, he quickly showed there was a new sheriff in town. For centuries, this city was plagued by the Triads, a brutal crime syndicate that crushed fingers and slit throats to get rich. Bo began a massive crackdown on Chongqing’s gangsters and corrupt officials that led to more than 3,300 arrests and the seizure of £184m-worth of assets, including 166 Bentleys, Lamborghinis and other luxury cars.

China’s judicial system is typically a closed-door affair, but Bo’s justice provided tabloid fodder on a par with the OJ Simpson trial. In what the Chinese media termed “the trial of the century,” hundreds of thugs, civil servants and mafia kingpins were led before the cameras in neon-orange prisoner vests, their crimes dissected in a spectacle of national schadenfreude that lasted weeks.

The most high profile of the accused was the squat, bespectacled former deputy police chief, Wen Qiang. The media gleefully reported on Wen’s ill-gotten collection of treasures: vintage wines, ivory-carved dragons and fossilised dinosaur eggs, which were displayed alongside other spoils on velvet tablecloths at police headquarters. Wen was charged with raping a college student, protecting organised crime and accepting bribes. When police showed his wife, also charged with bribery, footage of him in bed with underage prostitutes, she led them to a fish pond near the airport. After two days of digging investigators had uncovered £1.7m in Chinese yuan wrapped in waterproof stacks. For a country accustomed to staid propaganda and vacuous variety shows, here was a real-life Chinese soap opera that veered between The Sopranos and the Antiques Roadshow.

During the trials, hundreds of angry residents gathered outside the courthouse where they shared stories of beatings and forced house-demolitions in a rare government-endorsed protest against corruption. Suddenly the public could say out loud what before they could only grumble about in private.

Seizing on the outrage, Bo revelled in his role as the country’s new superhero. “The people of Chongqing are coming to government offices holding up photographs that are full of bloody bodies,” he said in a press conference. “The Triads are chopping up people, just like butchers killing animals. It is unbearable.”

In the end, six people were sentenced to death, including Wen, who was executed by lethal injection after a last meal of three steamed eggs and a pear. His death was celebrated with fireworks and red banners unfurled next to a Cartier store in Chongqing. “Executing Wen Qiang; Long Live the Communist Party; Long live the Law,” read one.

Bo’s made-for-TV justice, combined with the police stationed under black beach umbrellas across the city, has made Chongqing feel safer, and even now he is turning that legacy into propaganda gold. This month, Bo authorised deals for a four-volume history of the crackdown, followed by a film and a TV series.

Despite Bo’s success in the battle against organised crime, some critics see ulterior motives. “It’s just new bandits in office chasing out the old ones,” one commenter wrote on a popular online message board at the time, before it was removed by censors. The suspicion that the trials were subject to external influence increased when a crime kingpin’s lawyer was arrested and charged with instructing his client to claim he had been tortured.

Even if the process was murky, few people in Chongqing are now willing publicly to doubt Bo’s integrity or challenge the party’s shibboleth about serving the people. After all, villains were punished, so why probe? That is how Qiao Gang, a professor at Chongqing’s South Western University of Political Science and Law, responded when asked about the trial lawyer’s arrest and the lack of judicial independence in China. “He wouldn’t have been convicted if he didn’t commit a crime,” he said. “Everything was done according to the law.”

The crackdown cemented Bo’s reputation as a crime buster, but it also set him apart from other party leaders—a shift that has sent ripples across China’s political landscape. What Bo did was brash, unprecedented and a rebuke to the business-as-usual ties between bureaucrats and criminals, even if the mobsters sent to prison were merely those who had fallen out of favour. “Bo was brave enough to fight against evil,” Qiao said. “Sometimes I wonder why other leaders haven’t taken this kind of hard line against corruption.”

The leader that comes to mind would be Wang Yang, Bo’s predecessor as Chongqing Party Secretary and current boss of Guangdong Province, who is said to be a rival candidate for the Politburo Standing Committee. Boand Wang represents distinct factions within the party leadership. Bo is the figurehead for the so-called “new left,” Maoist conservatives who want to see more state economic and social influence, while Wang is the face of China’s more liberal reform-minded capitalists.

Whereas Wang’s Guangdong province is the traditional heart of the country’s economic reform and a relative bastion of media freedom, Bo has taken a different course. In late 2010 he sent Mao quotes to 13m mobile phones (“What really counts in the world is conscientiousness, and the Communist party is most particular about being conscientious,” read one) and launched a “red” TV channel that shows advert-free revolutionary shows.

But it was Bo’s “red songs” campaign that took the city by storm. In the run up to the Chinese Communist party’s 90th anniversary this summer, Chongqing residents took to parks, stadiums and concert halls to belt out revolutionary ballads, chosen from a list of 36 official songs. One weekday October afternoon, ten pensioners were practising their dance moves next to an abandoned Red Guard cemetery in Shaping Park, a lush oasis in the heart of Chongqing. Wearing gaudy blouses and red canvas flats, middle-aged women marched in formation to a resounding anthem championing party and sacrifice. They pumped their fists and then on cue, broke into two columns to make way for a retired iron-worker waving a massive Chinese flag. As the song crescendoed, the women froze in a final salute. It was like a Mao-era propaganda painting come to life, except that the once ruddy-cheeked youths had grey hairs.

Taking a break from the rehearsal, the women dispersed into impromptu clusters, excitedly critiquing their performance. The two men broke out a pack of Lesser Panda cigarettes.

“It’s because of Bo Xilai that we sing red songs to raise our spirits and live productive lives,” said Jiang Falong, 57, a retired toll-booth operator, her eyes twinkling. “Nowadays we don’t have to worry about food or shelter, but we need spiritual improvement. These songs can help us love our country and the Communist Party, which is the key to happiness.”

That people who lived through the Cultural Revolution could ignore the nearby gravestones of Mao’s martyrs while romanticising his legacy is an example of Bo’s ability to sanitise China’s past. Not everyone is a fan. Many in the party are dismayed at his celebration of Mao and believe his campaign is regressive.

“Bo Xilai is a dangerous demagogue,” a party member told me. “Look what he’s done, underneath all the red paint and slogans that have nothing to do with today’s China is an adventurous stab for power. There are old heads in Beijing who think he’s out of control and want to put a stop to his rise.”

Whether Bo’s populism will be a strength next year depends on China’s top leadership. But he is not hedging his bets. Last month he took aim at critics who accuse him of favouring ideology over development. He argued that “some comrades have misunderstood, feeling that development of the economy and improving people’s livelihood might be a contradiction,” and said that his motivation is purely to increase “common prosperity.”

This outburst, delivered to a group of journalists in Chongqing, underlines his courtship of the masses. Whatever happens with his bid for the Standing Committee, Bo’s populist campaign style has already rewritten the rules for China’s political class.

“Whether campaigning works for Bo or not, others will start doing this in the future,” Joseph Fewsmith of Boston University told me. “What we’re seeing here may be a change in the way Chinese politics is conducted.”

NOVEMBER 16, 2011 Prospect Magazine

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