Intrigue enters Chinese politics

BEIJING — In China, there are no elections, no slugfest debates, no $1,000-a-plate fundraisers. But lately the country seems to be taking a page from American politics, complete with campaign-style dirty tricks and a politician who wouldn't seem out of place pressing the flesh on the convention floor.

As in the United States, this is a transition year for China. In October, the Communist Party convenes to choose a successor to Hu Jintao, who is retiring as the party's secretary-general and, next year, as president. Vice President Xi Jinping has a lock on the top job, but seven seats out of the nine on the Standing Committee of the Politburo are also up for grabs.

And that's where the scramble for power began. The result has been a raging tabloid-style scandal (minus the tabloids because China has none) with a dead Englishman, a fiery sports car crash and an attempted defection to the United States.

"The mystery of palace politics is more entertaining than democracy, where everything can be analyzed," Chinese columnist Chang Ping wrote last week. "There can be fierce fighting even until death behind the black curtains and if any sign of blood leaks, people get really excited."

Before it all went topsy-turvy, the Chinese government was boasting its transition would be orderly and dignified, as opposed to the often-madcap spectacle of the democratic process.

The wild card in the process was Bo Xilai, the Communist Party chief in the city of Chongqing, whose firing March 15 has unraveled the party's carefully spun narrative.

Bo's ideology is decidedly un-American, in the 1950s-McCarthyism sense — he's a hard-core Maoist best known for a campaign to sing revolutionary songs — but his style was straight out of American politics.

In public, he spoke without a script and basked in media attention, loudly protesting his innocence to journalists on the sidelines of the National People's Congress the week before he was fired. That didn't sit well with China's tight-lipped apparatchiks.

"They were offended by his courting the media and promoting himself as a personality," said Patrick Chovanec, an economist and political analyst at Beijing's Tsinghua University. "If that became the new template of how you compete in Chinese politics, a lot of them would have been in trouble."

The Chinese announced Bo's firing in a terse dispatch on the official news service without explanation. In the absence of fact, rumors proliferated as wildly as the hundred flowers that Mao Tse-tung once said should bloom.

The turmoil burst into the open Feb. 6. Chongqing's deputy mayor, Wang Lijun, an Eliot Ness-type cop who had been Bo's henchman, sought political asylum at the nearest U.S. Consulate, in Chengdu, claiming Bo was trying to have him killed.

According to an internal party report that leaked out the week after Bo's firing, Wang and Bo had fallen out over an investigation that touched on Bo's family. Wang accused Bo of putting so much pressure on his police investigators that some offered to resign.

Recent leaks suggest the case concerned British expatriate Neil Heywood, 41, who was found dead in November in a Chongqing hotel room. The original cause of death was described as excessive alcohol consumption, but Heywood was not known to be a heavy drinker. He had been a friend of Bo's family for more than a decade and had helped get Bo's son into Harrow, the exclusive British boarding school.

Rumors spread that the death was connected to a business dispute with Bo's wife, Gu Kailai.

Around the same time, a fiery car crash in Beijing involving a black Ferrari prompted rumors that a witness in the Heywood case had been killed or perhaps one of the Politburo members' children — who are known to favor overpriced sports cars. Next, the week after Bo's fall, a heavy police presence in Beijing led to rumors of an attempted coup.

"You see, China does have politics and it is more interesting than in the United States," said Yang Jianli, a Chinese dissident who is now living in Washington.

Of course, not a word of it has been in the Chinese press. But officials within the Communist Party — like the opposition research team for an American politician — appear to be making deliberate leaks.

"In the past, all of the negative reports about Bo Xilai were blocked. Now all of the positive reports are deleted and the negative ones can stay online. It's been a little bit confusing," said Li Ping, 24, who is working on a master's degree at Chongqing University.

The damaging internal report that accused Bo of obstructing an investigation appeared on Boxun.com, a U.S.-based Chinese-language site that has become like Politico for China's political junkies. The Epoch Times, run by the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, has also carried many of the reports.

Even stranger, Wang's run to the U.S. Consulate was covered in minute-by-minute detail on Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like microblog popular in China. The blogger, who used the pseudonym Sun Dapao, described dialogue between the U.S. officials and Wang and added intriguing details — for example, that Wang had managed to slip out of his home undetected by disguising himself as an elderly woman.

"Highly entertaining, like gossip with tea," is how Ran Yunfei, a Chengdu-based writer and activist, described the unfolding scandal.

On Friday, the government launched an Internet crackdown that shuttered some websites and limited access to Sina Weibo. Critics note, however, that censorship tends to draw attention to the very issues that authorities are trying to conceal.

Bo had been party secretary for five years in Chongqing, a sprawling metropolis on the Yangtze with a Wild West reputation in China. He was credited with reviving the city's economy and cracking down on its notorious gangs. But as his power waned, the dark side of the so-called Chongqing model emerged.

People started griping that his vanity campaigns had run the city deep into deficits. According to Chongqing-born Chinese American writer Xujun Eberlein, Bo had spent more than $1 billion to have ginkgo trees — his favorite — planted throughout the city although the climate was too hot. The police got fancy new uniforms costing $600 each. During his "red song" campaigns, Chongqing television was banned from airing advertisements, leaving the station deeply in debt.

"It was like he was setting up his own independent kingdom in Chongqing," said Qing Yongpei, a lawyer from Guangxi province who is following the case.

The overly zealous campaigns evoked memories of Chinese communism's greatest failures — the Great Leap Forward, which thrust China into famine, and the Cultural Revolution, which caused a decade of chaos. Complaints also surfaced about Bo's methods: According to some reports, Wang accused Bo of having a police official tortured and killed.

But Yang, the dissident, believes it was not so much a conflict over Bo's Maoist ideology as his methods and personality that brought Bo down.

"Bo showed too much ambition," Yang said. "Was Xi Jinping scared of him? I'm sure he was."

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Special correspondent Jonathan Kaiman contributed to this report from Chongqing.

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