China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao – in his final months in office – is pushing for new reforms, including calling for a breakup China’s powerful state banking monopoly and giving foreign companies more access to government contracts. (Pontus Lundahl/AFP/Getty Images)

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has seized upon the ouster of his Communist Party rival Bo Xilai to reinvigorate what had until recently seemed a lonely campaign for Western-style economic liberalization and a battle against corruption.

Since singling out Bo for criticism at a dramatic March 14 news conference, Wen has moved aggressively to press ahead with a reform agenda that had gained little traction during most of his nine years as China’s second-ranking official.

A series of bold pronouncements by the premier in recent weeks has been backed by editorials in the state-run media, leaving little doubt that Wen and the reformist faction in the party have gained the upper hand, at least for now, in the tussle over Bo that seems part of a broader ideological struggle over China’s future.

It was only last year that Wen appeared to have been marginalized on the reform front after he gave an interview to Time magazine containing remarks on the issue that were largely censored by the Chinese media. Yet he has remained perhaps the country’s best known and most popular leader besides Bo himself, regularly traveling to the scene of earthquake sites and mining disasters, often photographed casually dressed and comforting victims, earning him the nickname “Grandpa Wen.”

Now, with only months before a party meeting that will install a new Chinese president and prime minister, Wen has resumed the reform mantra — with an added sense of urgency.

Wen has often been a lonely voice for reform in an entrenched, collective leadership resistant to change. Critics have questioned whether he was sincerely committed to liberalizing China or just saying what was deemed popular. One critic, dissident writer Yu Jie, dubbed Wen “China’s Best Actor” in the title of a book.

But Chinese analysts and overseas experts now agree that Wen has deftly used the scandal surrounding Bo to discredit his alternative governing philosophy in Chongqing. Bo’s methods, known as the “Chongqing model,” included a heavy role for the state, a redistribution of wealth, an emphasis on broad social welfare policies over growth led by the private sector, and, in practice, a heavy-handed authoritarianism, including a crackdown on crime that often trampled on the rule of law.

Elizabeth Economy, a China expert with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said, “I think there’s no doubt that Wen Jiabao is using this particular moment in time to make a last push for his reform agenda, and that encompasses both political reform and economic reform.”

Bo’s approach in Chongqing, she said, “was clearly antithetical to the approach Wen Jiabao has advocated.”

‘A turning point’

At a party work meeting March 26, Wen said new rules were imminent on the transparency of official accounts, including more disclosure of how public money is spent and a ban on government funds for cigarettes, alcohol and lavish parties. He also called corruption the country’s biggest problem and said that unless the party faced up to it, “the nature of political power could change.”

Wen told authorities to keep better track of officials’ wives and children who have moved to other countries. Several media reports have focused on whether Bo’s wife had obtained another nationality and how the couple’s son, Bo Guagua, 24, was able to study at elite schools in the United States and Britain, and afford an extravagant, partying lifestyle. Bo Guagua issued a statement in which he defended his lifestyle and said he had obtained scholarships and was financially supported by his mother, who was a successful lawyer.

An unsigned April 14 commentary backed Wen’s line, saying, “The spouses and children of some officials have taken advantage of their power to seek personal gains, disregarding the law, thus stirring public outcry.”

“Bo’s ouster marks a turning point in China’s history and gives China an opportunity,” said Wang Kang, a scholar and documentary filmmaker from the southwestern city of Chongqing, where Bo served as Communist Party chief until his ouster last month. “This is a struggle over what path China should choose for its future.”

He added: “I think this victory is still very fragile.”

Tie Liu, a former journalist who was jailed for 23 years in a “work camp” during an ideological struggle under Mao Zedong, said, “Bo’s case reflects the struggle within the party over which path to take — what Bo Xilai advocated were the thoughts of Mao Zedong, like class struggle — whether China should continue the opening and reform or turn back to Mao’s era.”

Sensing an opportunity

Wen, President Hu Jintao and five other leaders from the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee are scheduled to retire this year in a once-in-a-generation power shift that will see Vice President Xi Jinping take over as president.

Bo, the charismatic son of a Mao-era revolutionary hero, Bo Yibo, had been widely assumed to be in line for one of the seven vacant slots on the Standing Committee, the elite body that effectively runs the country. But Bo’s downfall began Feb. 6, when his former police chief and onetime right-hand man in Chongqing, Wang Lijun, entered the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, 200 miles away.

Wang, who initially sought a meeting with British diplomats, told the Americans that Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was involved in the death of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, whose body was found in a Chongqing hotel room Nov. 15, 2010. Wang remained at the consulate for more than 24 hours but was eventually taken by top Chinese security officials to Beijing, where he remains out of sight.

Chinese authorities have said that Bo was removed from the Central Committee and the Politburo and is being investigated for “serious violations” of the party’s discipline rules. His wife and a household aide have been detained on suspicion of killing Heywood after falling out over a financial dispute, according to the official version.

Beyond that official version, little is known. Overseas and online media have offered numerous but sometimes conflicting versions of exactly what went on in Chongqing and what central government authorities are investigating.

But in his March 14 news conference, Wen made clear that he had linked what he called “the Wang Lijun incident” to a broader agenda. Answering a question about Chongqing and Wang’s flight to the consulate, Wen said, “We’ve taken the major decision of conducting reform and opening up in China, a decision that’s crucial for China’s future and destiny.”

Some analysts said Wen appeared to be using the Chongqing incident as an opportunity for “housecleaning,” to remove Bo and others considered opposed to further economic opening before he steps down as prime minister this year.

“Wen Jiabao feels he has an obligation to get rid of this troublemaker,” said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese elite politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Wang Kang, the Chongqing academic who was visiting Beijing this week, added: “Wen Jiabao seized this chance, turning a bad thing into something good.”

Researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.