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Bo Xilai issue hangs over China's 18th Party Congress

China must be working hard on making the larger-than-life political character, whose wife recently confessed to murder, essentially vanish, analysts say.

August 30, 2012|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • Bo Xilai, then Chongqing party secretary, attends a March plenary session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Bo Xilai, then Chongqing party secretary, attends a March plenary session… (Andy Wong, Associated Press )

BEIJING — Bo Xilai could be the ultimate party pooper.

For the Chinese Communist Party, that is.

The 18th Party Congress in October will anoint the people who are to lead China through 2020. Yet even as police evict potential troublemakers from the city in preparation for the party's biggest event in a decade, it still hasn't dealt with the renegade politician whose wife was convicted last week of murder.

"They need to deal with him very fast. If they leave him in place, that won't be good for the upcoming generation of leadership," said Zhang Ming, a political scientist at People's University in Beijing.

The 62-year-old Bo has been stripped of his post as Chongqing Communist Party secretary, and he was kicked out of the 25-member Politburo in April for what were described as "serious disciplinary violations."

The government appears poised to remove him this week as a member of the National People's Congress, the Chinese equivalent of a parliament, during a five-day committee meeting that is supposed to conclude Friday. According to the congress' website, the meeting will deal with "personnel changes" and "legal matters"; political analysts believe that is code for Bo.

"It is definitely a signal that they are about to deal with Bo's fate," said Chen Ziming, an analyst and former political prisoner. Chen believes that Bo also will be expelled from the Communist Party. "One hundred percent, they have got to get rid of him."

At the upcoming 18th Party Congress, Vice President Xi Jinping is to be named to replace President Hu Jintao, and Vice Premier Li Keqiang to replace Wen Jiabao. It is likely to be a carefully scripted affair, with any unpredictable, spontaneous or indecorous element banished by a leadership that boasts of the "harmony" of its governance.

But it is not easy to stage a vanishing act with a larger-than-life character like Bo.

Bo's folksy campaigns in Chongqing to root out corruption and to revive the singing of revolutionary ballads won admiration from those who believe that China has veered too far toward free-market capitalism. Many saw him as the latter-day embodiment of Mao Tse-tung.

"Bo Xilai was the only one brave enough to confront the challenges we face in China, such as the growing gap between rich and poor," said Han Deqiang, a left-wing economist and one of Bo's most outspoken supporters. "He was one of the few who had ideas that could prevent China from disintegrating like the USSR.''

Since Bo's downfall in March, Chinese censors have blocked leftist websites and arrested the few supporters brave enough to take to the streets.

"They didn't even get a chance to put out banners or say anything before they were taken away," said Wang Zheng, an economics professor who tried to organize a pro-Bo demonstration in May at Tiananmen Square.

Still, small demonstrations pop up from time to time.

Chanting "Long live Chairman Mao," die-hard supporters demonstrated outside the courthouse in Hefei in Anhui province, where Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, stood trial this month. Supporters last month gathered 1,644 signatures on a petition on the Red China website calling for Bo's rehabilitation and the removal of current leaders.

Sima Nan, a Maoist intellectual, said Bo's supporters are limited in how the express themselves.

"If you go to the Internet, you'll be blocked. If you go on the streets, you'll be arrested," Sima said. "But that doesn't mean this case will be quickly resolved. Bo has become a martyr and an icon for what many people believe."

Bo's supporters also continued to swirl a persistent conspiracy theory that the murder charges against Gu Kailai were fabricated to keep Bo out of political power. Although Chinese television aired a snippet of the court proceedings Aug. 9 in which Gu confessed, skeptics claim that the woman shown in the courtroom (who appeared much larger and less attractive than previous photographs of Bo's wife) was actually someone else.

"This whole trial was a fake. The woman in court wasn't even Gu Kailai," said Wang, the professor who wrote a blog on the trial.

Bo has not been accused of complicity in the murder, although some reports leaked to Chinese media suggest that he ordered a coverup after learning of his wife's involvement. The evidence also suggests that the victim, Neil Heywood, was involved in real estate projects with Bo's family and was helping them send money out of China, in violation of currency controls.

Until his downfall, Bo was a contender for the upper echelon of leadership. He was thought likely to get the nod as Communist Party secretary for either Beijing or Shanghai, if not a spot on the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo.

His glad-handing, telegenic style made him more like an American politician than a dour Chinese cadre; he was one of the few leadership figures regularly photographed smiling. Elsewhere, in fact, he might have been the life of the party. But not in China.

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