HONG KONG — With China’s propaganda apparatus in overdrive as the Communist Party demolishes the reputation of one of its former stars, a few defiant and angry fans are sticking to their guns.
“We support the Chongqing Model and Bo Xilai,” declared a call to arms posted on the Web site of the Progress Society, a pugnacious “new left” fraternity that trumpets the ousted Chongqing Party boss as a hero. Its logo features a panda wearing a Mao cap and clutching a rifle in front of a Chinese flag.
Bo, who until just a few weeks ago had a shot at joining the supremely powerful nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, has now been stripped of all his posts and is under investigation for “serious violations of discipline” while his wife is in detention on suspicion of murdering a British business consultant.
China’s new left is a disparate, volatile force, united only by a vague sense that the country has taken a wrong turn by pursuing economic growth above all else. Members range from nationalist firebrands and prominent intellectuals to discontented princelings, such as Hu Yingmu, the elderly daughter of Mao Zedong’s longtime secretary.
“The real concern in Beijing is that the links here are unpredictable, difficult to gauge and largely underground,” said Patricia Thornton, a scholar of Chinese politics at the University of Oxford. The jittery mood in Beijing, heightened by unfounded recent rumors of a coup, gives the new left “more heft than it would otherwise have in normal times and contributes greatly to sense of uncertainty as the next transition looms” at the Party’s 18th Congress later this year.
Most of Bo’s previously outspoken supporters have now fallen silent in the face of a steamroller of official denunciation. But hit-and-run polemic strikes are being made on Web sites and Twitter-like micro-blogs.
The Progress Society site, which is officially blocked in China but is still accessible to legions of Internet users who know how to skirt the “Great Firewall,” froths with bile and often personal attacks on Party leaders, particularly Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, a relative liberal whom Bo’s supporters blame for his downfall.
“Fake communists have seized power in new China,” read a message flashing across the top of the home page Friday.
Who stands behind the site, first registered to an address in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou in 2010, is not known. There have been rumors of a connection to hard-line nationalist elements in the People’s Liberation Army. But it could also be tied to overseas activists intent on stirring tumult as the Party struggles to contain the biggest political crisis since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Bo had staked his political career and also won many fans by promoting a so-called Chongqing model: a mix of retro rhetoric and rituals from the Mao era, a ferocious campaign against alleged gangsters (often just rich people, say critics) and an emphasis on narrowing a widening gap in China between the wealthy and the poor.
Gauging how China really feels about Bo is impossible. Officials who used to praise him now denounce him as the Party and military “biaotai” — or “declare a stand” — a ritual of loyalty that accompanies all Chinese political crises.
Utopia, a leftist Web site that was shut down late last week, briefly came back to life Thursday with a statement declaring: “However much you close and shield, we at Utopia will always support Bo Xilai!” Utopia then deleted the message and said it had been hijacked by hackers.
The Progress Society, meanwhile, fumed at Wen and other Party figures suspected of liberal leanings, and updated its gallery of “Western slaves” — intellectuals and others who have spoken up for democratic reform and the rule of law.
The site was first registered under the name of “Liu Shan,” who listed an address in Zhengzhou. In a response to e-mailed queries before Bo’s ouster, an unidentified site administrator responded that Liu Shan is just “an enthusiastic netizen who helped us out.” The administrator declined to elaborate or say who runs the Web operation.
Ben Xu, a Chinese scholar at St. Mary’s College of California who has been targeted as a “Western slave” by the site, said he has no idea who is behind it. China’s new leftists, he added, are a heterogenous group but generally “educated people who are against democracy, human rights and argue for the one party state.”
One of Bo’s most vocal supporters, nationalist polemicist Sima Nan, has now curbed his enthusiasm for Chongqing and its former boss but made clear he’s not happy with his hero’s downfall. He replaced a photo of Bo and family on his micro-blog page with a black Chinese character signifying mourning and grief. He’s voiced no sympathy, however, for British businessman Neil Heywood, who was found dead in a Chongqing hotel room in November. Chinese authorities initially said he died from a heart attack after a drinking binge. They now say that Heywood was murdered and that Bo’s wife, along with a family retainer, is “highly suspected” of committing the crime after a dispute over money.
In an interview before Bo’s ouster this week from the Central Committee, Sima said Chongqing was being “demonized” by the media and he criticized remarks last month by Wen that China risked a new Cultural Revolution — a statement that signaled the end of Bo’s career.
“I think the Chongqing model is the road the Party must take after the 18th Congress because the Chongqing model solved the most difficult problems,” Sima said. He has now stopped answering his phone.
Those rallying to Bo’s defense do so mostly under cover of anonymity. An article bylined “Chongqing People” and posted on a popular Web site took a swipe at Wen and called on people to “use facts to refute the filthy water poured on Chongqing with baseless claims that it wants to ‘revive the cultural revolution.’ ”
Without naming Wen it ridiculed his warnings of a new Cultural Revolution, asking: “Is narrowing the gap between rich and poor and realizing common prosperity a Cultural Revolution?”
Correspondent Keith Richburg and researcher Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.