Amid the pageantry this week of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, which meets for 10 days each year in early March, the antics of one man have consumed the public’s attention.
Bo Xilai, the Communist party secretary of the western city of Chongqing, finally broke his silence on Friday in front of a small group of journalists – dozens of others were kept out – and answered questions about the scandal that has engulfed him in recent weeks.
With his Cheshire cat smile, immaculate navy blue suit and yellow tie, he acknowledged an investigation had been launched into Wang Lijun, his former police chief in Chongqing, after he tried to defect to the US in early February.
But Mr Bo said this was an isolated case that should not be hyped. He insisted he himself was not under investigation and had not offered to resign.
His absence on Thursday from an important parliament meeting had prompted feverish speculation that he had already been ousted or detained, but on Friday he beamed at the assembled reporters as he explained he had been struck down by a “cough” and so could not attend.
Mr Bo, who holds a master's degree in journalism, is probably the only Chinese politician who would not look out of place running for office in a televised US campaign. In past years his slick press events have been a highlight of the annual parliamentary pantomime.
He was believed to be a frontrunner for elevation to the highest ranks of the Communist party until just one month ago, when Mr Wang took refuge in the US Consulate in the western city of Chengdu for more than 24 hours claiming his life was in danger after a rift with his boss.
“I feel like I put my trust in the wrong person as a manager,’’ Mr Bo said. “So this incident is something we need to seriously reflect on.’’
Towards the end of this year, seven of the nine members of the party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee will be replaced in a once-in-a-decade leadership transition. Mr Bo was seen as a shoo-in for one of those spots.
To secure that promotion, he launched a series of bold initiatives in recent years that have come to be known collectively as the “Chongqing model”.
These included the mobilising of hundreds of thousands of citizens for nostalgic singalongs of “red” revolutionary ballads, a brutal crackdown led by Mr Wang on “organised crime”, and a strong push to provide better state housing and social services. “If only a few people are rich, then we are capitalists. We’ve failed,” AP reported Mr Bo as saying.
On Friday, Mr Bo said he had never directly linked himself to the upcoming leadership transition and the crackdown on “organised crime” in Chongqing was all about creating a favourable environment for the masses and local businesses.
“On this issue, shall we pretend to be deaf or shall we be responsible for the people? We chose the latter,” Mr Bo said.
This statement, like the campaign itself, has already been interpreted as an implicit attack on Mr Bo’s political rivals, most prominently his predecessor as Chongqing party secretary, Wang Yang, who is now party secretary of Guangdong province and another leading contender for elevation to the Standing Committee.
Mr Bo’s campaign against “mafia bosses” has been heavily criticised for ignoring normal legal procedures, using torture to extract confessions and for only targeting powerful businesspeople who are not his political allies.
In an article published in the FT on Monday, former Chongqing billionaire Li Jun recounted how he was tortured on the orders of Wang Lijun, his estimated Rmb4.5bn ($713m) in assets were seized and most of his family members were arrested when he managed to flee the country.
“This was a campaign using mafia methods in the name of cracking down on the mafia,” Mr Li told the FT from an undisclosed location outside China. “They accused me of all sorts of crimes, tortured me until I confessed and then took all my assets – now that is the real Chongqing model.”
On Wednesday, Chongqing police detained another businessman in Beijing who claimed to have had his assets unlawfully seized in the Chongqing crackdown and said he possessed more details on the Wang Lijun case that he planned to make public.
The businessman, Zhang Mingyu, who is also a delegate to the local Chongqing parliament, was taken away in handcuffs from his apartment in Beijing and has not been heard from since, his lawyer told the FT on Friday.
Although much of the country has been fixated on the scandal swirling around Mr Bo, the heavily censored Chinese media has remained characteristically silent and citizens have had to stay informed through foreign media and internet reports.
China’s largest official media organisations have preferred to focus their political reporting on less sensitive subjects, such as “Attractive females at [National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress] sessions”.
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