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A bombshell explodes in Chongqing
The mega-municipality of Chongqing high up the Yangtze is known for its murky atmosphere, especially since industrial pollution has added to the habitual thick fog in its bowl of hills. Now a political cloud has descended on the city, raising the prospect of the first significant wrinkle in China’s leadership transition that starts with the Communist Party conference in October where Bo Xilai, the Chongqing boss, is expected to be elevated to the Standing Committee of the Politburo.
Bo has made his considerable mark in western China by building up Chongqing’s economy at a hectic pace, aiming for 12.5 per cent annual growth while enlisting local residents in his “red songs” campaign to celebrate the traditional, patriotic values of the People’s Republic. A vital element in his political career was a wide-ranging a campaign against underworld figures in the city and their official accomplices. It led to 1,544 arrests and a mass trial that ended with the conviction of 19 crime bosses and six police chiefs, some of whom were sentenced to death.
A senior local official, Wang Lijun, acted as Bo’s enforcer in the anti-crime drive which had national political overtones since the gangsters and their protectors had flourished under the city’s previous Party secretary, Wang Yang, who is now in charge of Guangdong and is another candidate for the Standing Committee later this year. Wang Yang has sniped at Bo with derogatory remarks aimed at his “red songs” campaign and has urged that China should not make crude GDP growth its leitmotif, as described in our note last month (see Watch China Weathervane, Janueary 2012).
But a potentially much more serious political bombshell burst in Chongqing this week when it was announced that the other Wang was taking “therapeutic leave” after being relieved of his police duties and given new responsibilities for education, science and the environment as a vice mayor. Wang has been associated with Bo since they both worked in the government of the northeastern province of Liaoning; he moved with Chongqing in 2008 after Bo became Communist Party Secretary there. The anti-crime campaign he ran was highly publicised and was the subject of a laudatory book.
“It is understood that Deputy Mayor Wang Lijun, who has suffered overwork and immense mental stress for a long time, is seriously indisposed physically,” the Chongqing Information Office said on its microblog. “He is currently undergoing a vacation-style therapy.” His mobile telephone was switched off today. Rumours flew in the blogosphere that he was being investigated for corruption and had gone to the US consulate in the city of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, which surrounds Chongqing. Spokesmen for the Chongqing Public Security Bureau and the US embassy in Beijing declined to comment but photographs posted on the main Chinese blog site showed police cars in position round the consulate in Chengdu.
The leadership transition at the very top of China’s power structure seems assured, with Xi Jinping, who will visit the US this month, becoming Party Secretary and then State President while Hu Jintao’s protégé, Li Keqiang, succeeds Wen Jiabao as Prime Minister. (See our report China orchestrates its leadership transition, April 2011). But Bo Xilai, a “princeling” likes Xi because his father was Mao Zedong’s Finance Minister and one of the regime’s “Eight Immortals”, has always been the joker in the pack, the rock star of Chinese politics who campaigns like a Western contender for office despite the absence of open elections.
Although he has risen steadily upwards, getting the endorsement of Xi and having his “red songs” campaign emulated in other major cities, some observers see him as in danger of falling victim to the “tall poppy” syndrome as more conventional Party figures seek to bar his ascent. The abrupt departure of the man who stage-managed his high-profile anti-crime crusade is embarrassing, to say the least. Could it amount to more? This is a saga well worth watching as we track China’s transition in 2012.
Trusted Sources is at www.trustedsources.co.uk