Bo Xilai's charm offensive is paying off politically in China

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 8, 2010

BEIJING -- Of the nearly 3,000 members of China's ruling elite in the country's capital this weekend to kick off the biggest political gathering of the year, only one has the state media and online commentators abuzz: Bo Xilai.

Named "Man of the Year" by a People's Daily online poll, the subject of an adoring home video being circulated on the Internet and revered in countless blogs, Bo is in contention to be named to one of the top jobs in China in 2012, when many of the country's current leaders are expected to retire.

In the three years he has served as the top Communist Party official in Chongqing, the country's largest municipality, Bo has shaken up Chinese politics by becoming a wildly popular politician in a country where politicians in the Western sense are frowned upon.

"Bo Xilai is a selfless person and a fearless one. In these times, we need government officials like Bo . . . He chases justice for ordinary people," said Li Lei, a 48-year-old entrepreneur. Li created the video tribute after reading about Bo's crackdown on Chongqing's mafia, a crusade that not only targeted corrupt businessmen but -- in a departure from previous efforts -- the senior-level government officials who colluded with them.

The official purpose of the meeting of the National People's Congress from March 5 to 14 in Beijing is to review and pass new legislation. But given that there's no separation of powers in China and that some of those who will vote on the laws were also involved in drafting them, the gathering is largely symbolic.

The more interesting discussions are happening behind the scenes, because this year's people's congress is the unofficial start of mid-term jockeying for the 2012 Communist Party Congress where the next generation of leaders will take the reins from Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao.

All eyes are focused on which of the "fifth generation leaders" like Bo are up and which are down -- what that says about the direction of the country.

In two years, more than half the members of the ruling Politburo are expected to retire or step aside because of age. This would set the stage for newcomers to emerge as the principal figures responsible for the country's political and ideological affairs, economic and financial administration, foreign policy and military operations, according to Cheng Li, a China researcher at the Brookings Institution.

Among them, Li Keqiang, 55, a former farmer who got his doctorate in economics at one of China's top universities and is now vice premier, is widely seen as being groomed to be the next premier. Xi Jinping, 57, the son of a powerful Communist Party elder and who currently serves as the vice president, is considered to be the most likely heir to the position of president.

However, Li, the China researcher, wrote in a recent policy paper that "a dark horse can emerge in Chinese politics, just as in American politics." He wrote it would be wise to "pay greater attention to a broader group of potential contenders for power, especially the rising stars in provincial leadership." Of those regional leaders, Bo -- a former minister of commerce, provincial governor and mayor -- is the standout.

While other senior-level officials tend to be shy and awkward in dealing with the public and the media, Bo has managed to charm nearly everyone. He has led crowds of thousands in singalongs of "red culture" songs, sat down for TV chats with protesting workers and communicated with students via mass text messages.

At 60, Bo is too old and controversial to be regarded as a candidate to become premier. But Chinese scholars say he's likely to be named to the Communist Party's nine-member standing committee -- China's most powerful decision-making group.

Charismatic, handsome and majestically tall by Chinese standards at 6-foot-1, Bo has become the poster child for a group of emerging Chinese leaders known as the "princelings."

His candidacy reflects how far China's Communist Party has evolved from its origins. Today the party's constituency is increasingly middle class and more concerned with things like business and finance than Marxist ideology.

Like other "princelings" -- descendants of high-ranking party officials -- Bo grew up mostly in China's wealthier coastal regions, came of age during the Cultural Revolution, is fluent in English, has a graduate degree, and began his career in the government after it began market-based economic reforms in the late 1970s.

In contrast, many of China's current leaders were raised mostly in the inland by ordinary working-class families and they worked their way up the ranks of the government bureaucracy through postings in far-flung provinces. Known as "tuanpai" -- a reference to the China Communist Youth League that they were members of and that was once considered the place to groom future leaders -- these men are considered technocrats who have helped China carry out the goals set forth by previous generations but stopped short of reinventing them.

In policy decisions, the princelings tend to believe the future lies with advancing the interests of the middle class; the tuanpai tend to pay more attention than the princelings to vulnerable groups such as farmers, migrant workers and the urban poor.

Bo "is perceived by the public as a modern, honest and upright official," said Zhang Hongliang, an economics professor at the Minzu University in Beijing. On the other hand, Zhang said, "The high praise of Bo equals criticism of other officials," which has created enemies.

The second eldest son of the seven children of Bo Yibo, one of a group of Communist Party officials known as the "Eight Immortals" who were purged during the Cultural Revolution for supporting open trade with the West and other capitalist-style reforms, Bo and the rest of his family were jailed and his mother was beaten to death in custody. But when Deng Xiaoping rose to power in 1978, he returned Bo Yibo to his position of vice premier. Bo Xilai thrived during his father's tenure in Beijing, graduating from Peking University with a degree in history and then working at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a prestigious government-affiliated think tank, for his master's degree.

Today Bo is in charge of running Chongqing, a region of more than more than 31,000 square miles and 32 million people along the Yangtze River that is the largest of China's four provincial-level municipalities. In the fall of 2008, Bo gained national praise for the way he managed strikes by teachers, police and taxi drivers in the city as China's economy began to contract. While other regional leaders around the country faced with similar problems treated striking workers as criminals, arresting leaders and sending in police, Bo made what was considered a radical move in China: He invited taxi driver representatives to meet with him in a forum broadcast on state television and negotiated terms for ending the strike.

And in 2009, Bo took another political gamble. He launched what he called a "Red Culture Campaign" to get people to get together and read, study and even sing about Mao Zedong's work again. While a few scholars ridiculed the efforts, it was a hit with the masses, with hundreds of thousands showing up at the events.

Researcher Wang Juan contributed to this report.

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