In Chongqing, Bo Xilai’s legacy and popularity endure


CHONGQING, CHINA - MAY 17: In Chongqing's downtown Three Gorges Square, people, mostly retirees, enjoy gathering in the afternoons to sing on May 17, 2012. When Bo Xilai was in power here, he encouraged a "red revival" that included singing Mao-era revolutionary songs. Bo was ousted from his post in the biggest scandal to hit China's Communist Party since 1989. But in Chongqing, the singing goes on -- albeit with fewer "red songs" than before. Now they intersperse the revolutionary anthems with traditional Chinese songs. Many of these people in the park fondly remember Bo Xilai and his interest in promoting social welfare in the southwestern Chinese megacity. (Photo by Keith B. Richburg/The Washington Post) (Keith B. Richburg/THE WASHINGTON POST)
May 22, 2012

The legacy of Bo Xilai, the ousted regional Communist Party chief, endures in this southwestern Chinese mega-city with its four-lane highways, expanding factories and hundreds of thousands of new apartments.

While Bo remains under house arrest in Beijing, longtime residents hail what they describe as the transformation during his four-year reign of what not long ago was a provincial, insular, inland city. For the most part, a new regional leader appointed by the central authorities appears to be moving cautiously for fear of antagonizing Bo’s many backers.

“Before Bo came, Chongqing was like a little girl. After Bo, we grew into a young beauty,” said Ding Rui, a 43-year-old tourist-van driver and Chong­qing native. In January, Ding, his wife and their daughter moved into a brand-new, government-subsidized, 785-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment — thanks to one of Bo’s pet projects: to build housing for low-income residents.

“He made a lot of dramatic changes that ordinary people can feel,” Ding said. “As for the new party secretary, we don’t even know what he looks like.”

The new regional leader, Zhang Dejiang, has signaled that the private sector might gain more official support after being largely neglected under Bo’s “red revival’’ approach to communism. But Zhang has shown no sign of rolling back the big-ticket construction projects and social welfare programs that made Bo something of a local hero.

The charismatic son of a Mao-era revolutionary hero, Bo had been considered one of the Communist Party’s rising political stars until his prospects began to unravel Feb. 6, when his right-hand man, Wang Lijun, the vice mayor and longtime police chief, sought refuge for 24 hours at the U.S. Consulate in nearby Chengdu.

Bo was fired as Chongqing party chief March 15. A month later, he was dismissed from the Communist Party Central Committee and the elite Politburo after authorities announced that his wife, Gu Kailai, and a household aide were suspected of killing a British businessman, Neil Heywood.

Bo’s sudden and dramatic downfall has upset the Communist Party’s carefully choreographed plans for a ­once-in-a-decade leadership change this year, and it has posed the gravest challenge to authorities since the 1989 upheaval caused by the Tiananmen Square protests.

Bo has not been linked to the Heywood slaying, and it remains unclear what, if any, charges he might face.

A spate of news reports has emerged in the past few weeks linking Bo and his family members to business interests in China and overseas, suggesting that he could be charged with corruption. A special Chinese investigations unit, with members from the party’s discipline commission and the Finance Ministry, recently visited Hong Kong to trace some of the Bo family’s assets, according to news reports and people with knowledge of the inquiry.

“Whether they would charge the couple with corruption and economic crimes and money laundering, I think the decision has not yet been made,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a longtime China watcher. “That’s why they sent people to Hong Kong — to look at the money trail. They also want to recover the money, which has been laundered overseas. Whether they would use that as evidence against the couple is another question.”

The spokesman for the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, as the organization is formally known, said that “Comrade Bo Xilai . . . is suspected of severely breaking the rules” but would provide no further details. “Currently, the investigation work is still going on, and we will release the relevant information to the public after the investigation is completed,” the spokesman said.

Shock and astonishment

In Chongqing, there is a sense of shock that Bo has been fired and embroiled in scandal.

“I was astonished to hear what happened,” said a 70-year-old retired man who did not want to be quoted by name. “Bo did a lot to impress ordinary people. He did a lot of good things here.”

“We should look at Bo Xilai objectively. He did a lot of good things,” said another retired dock worker, 80, adding that he was a longtime member of the Communist Party. He cited the improved traffic because of the city’s broadened highways, the crackdown on crime that has made the streets safer at night and a “green” campaign to plant more trees in this high-rise urban area. “If he played a role on his wife’s case,” the man said, “then the government will punish him.”

The men were speaking in Three Gorges Square in the heart of downtown, where scores of retirees gather every afternoon to play instruments and sing Chinese songs. As part of the “red revival,” Bo encouraged people to sing patriotic revolutionary anthems from the Mao era, and he organized group singing campaigns.

Zhang, the new party chief, has discontinued the pageants. In a speech last month, he mentioned the need to “continuously strengthen the private economy.” But the retirees still gather in the square each day, and they still like to sing the old songs, such as “Red Star Shines,’’ although they concede that they sing fewer communist anthems now that Bo is gone.

Other residents, particularly from Chongqing’s remote and rural areas, said they liked Bo for his emphasis on the poor. Under Bo, the government began distributing free cartons of milk to elementary school students in poorer areas.

“I think Bo set an example in caring about people’s lives, like improving security, and giving insurance to old people,” said Lan Zhongwei, 49, who ekes out a living hauling heavy cartons for shops and customers on his handcart.

Lan described Bo as one of the few Communist Party officials who cared about people like him. “I feel sorry for him,” Lan said.

Moving cautiously

Faced with Bo’s residual popularity, authorities seem to be moving gingerly, particularly in rolling back his welfare policies and expansive public housing plans. Chongqing’s mayor, Huang Qifan, who was close to Bo, has kept his position, and he and other officials have sought to assure foreign investors that they are still welcome in Chongqing.

“Because of the political change, it seems that these days investors hesitate a little,” said Richard Cao, chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce for Southwest China. “But this is understandable. Investors hesitate when faced with change.”

On the streets, Bo and his policies still garner support.

“Of course, we ordinary people think he’s a good leader,” said Liu Bin, a middle-aged taxi driver who recalled Bo’s role in resolving a drivers strike that won a reduction in fees paid to the taxi company.

Liu mused about the possibility of getting ordinary people to show their support for Bo, saying that if local people “all got together and appealed for Bo, do you think we might help him somewhat?”

He added quickly: “I’m just dreaming. Who would dare organize such an event in China?”

Researcher Wang Juan contributed to this report.

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