Fall of China official roils Chongqing, with some public dissent


CHONGQING, China — Change has come quickly to this sprawling city of 30 million people since the charismatic local party chief, Bo Xilai, was fired last month by the national Communist Party leadership in China’s most high-profile political shake-up in 20 years.

Signs in public squares now ban gatherings to sing “red songs,” a prominent element of Bo’s effort to revitalize Mao-era values. Advertising has replaced propaganda messages on television. Bo’s supporters say some old problems — be it the nuisance of unwanted leaflets or a bigger issue like prostitution — are creeping back.

But the former Chongqing party chief’s most ardent followers aren’t ready to simply accept his fate. Instead, they are challenging an unwritten rule that such high-level political decisions in China are beyond reproach by common people.

Although the reason for Bo’s firing is unclear, it came at the start of a sensitive year for the Chinese leadership. More than half the country’s 25 most-powerful figures are due to retire in a once-in-a-decade transition. The party, dominated by gray apparatchiks, values stability. Bo is a populist wild card.

The crackdown continued Tuesday. State television reported that Bo had been suspended from his remaining posts on the party Central Committee and Politburo. The official news agency reported that Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was a suspect in the mysterious death of a British businessman in November. China hasn’t seen such relatively open political turmoil since 1989.

Many academics, lawyers and other intellectuals were happy to see Bo leave. But the party’s campaign against him is unlikely to convince Bo supporters such as the group of retirees swaying recently to Chinese pop music in Chongqing’s People’s Square, a tree-lined swath of red and gray tile sandwiched between an imposing government building and a leafy hillside.

“Ninety-five percent of us common people support Bo. He was a good leader,” said a woman in a red tracksuit. “Now Chongqing people want to take him back.”

“We’re retired now, so we’re not afraid to talk about these things,” said a 59-year-old man who identified himself as Mr. Shi. When two security guards began approaching from the far end of the square, the crowd dispersed.

Bo’s mark will be difficult to erase. Many live in public housing he built and on pension plans he created.

“Chongqing’s ambition was the ambition of Bo Xilai,” said Bo Zhiyue, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore. Many Chongqing people believe that “their city has been changed for the better because of this particular leader,” he said. “So I think they have a reason to be confused.”

In the last month, billboards across Chongqing advertising Bo’s campaigns have been torn down. The city’s main television station, which replaced its commercials with socialist propaganda under Bo, has resumed its regular programming.

An urban planning museum by the river in central Chongqing has closed an entire wing that housed an exhibition about Bo’s campaigns. A sign by the wing’s entrance says that the space is being “sterilized” and that visitors should keep away for their own safety.

But some of Bo’s most distinctive marks on the city have not yet been rubbed out. Tall, slender policewomen in heavy makeup and starched white uniforms stand in the middle of roundabouts to direct traffic, a Bo trademark. Ginkgo trees, which Bo purchased at great expense for his “Forest Chongqing” initiative, still line the sidewalks.

Chongqing’s hot pot restaurants, mah-jongg parlors and university campuses are abuzz with speculation about what will happen to the city now that he’s gone. Some say that crime bosses are celebrating his demise, that the police have become lazy, and that pensioners who benefited from Bo’s policies are planning a revolt.

“Bo did a great job of keeping the city clean,” said Jessica Li, 25, a researcher at a pharmaceuticals company. “Whether it was unregistered fliers or prostitution, that was all gone. Now it’s back in force.”

Bo’s downfall came after his then-right-hand man, Wang Lijun, fled to the U.S. Consulate in nearby Chengdu in February, seeking political asylum. Allegations have since surfaced that Bo may have overstepped the law in his “Smash the Black” anti-mafia campaign, detaining and torturing his adversaries.

Both official and unofficial news media have reported major shake-ups in Chongqing since Bo was fired. The Chongqing Daily said March 27 that Chen Cungen, a standing member of the municipal committee under Bo, had been removed from his post. A former aide to Wang has been placed under investigation, according to Caixin, an independent Chinese newspaper.

“Things are a lot more relaxed now” that Bo is gone, said a 31-year-old Chongqing government official who, because of the sensitivity of the issue, requested anonymity. Low-level officials have been required to attend frequent meetings about how to keep in lock step with Beijing. Many were surprised to receive a series of documents from the central government detailing Bo’s alleged misdeeds.

That was before the bombshells dropped Tuesday. Chinese television said that Bo was being removed from his national party positions for “violations of party discipline” and that an inspection committee would investigate him.

The charges against his wife were even more sensational. The New China News Agency said Gu and the family’s housekeeper, Zhang Xiaojun, had been transferred to judicial authorities in connection with the death of Neil Heywood, a 41-year-old British businessman who had been friendly with the Bo family.

The report said authorities suspected them of “intentional homicide,” but provided no other detail. Heywood died in a Chongqing hotel of what was ruled “excessive alcohol consumption,” and his body was cremated. But in late March, the British government asked China to investigate the death.

For much of his tenure, Bo’s Chongqing had been widely lauded as an economic success. The city’s gross domestic product rose 16.6% in 2011, faster than that of any other major Chinese city. Multinational companies, including Hewlett-Packard and Ford, established outposts in Chongqing, creating tens of thousands of jobs.

Chongqing’s growth is evident in its ubiquitous concrete villages sitting half-demolished among the residential high-rises flanking its freshly paved thoroughfares. The Yangtze River, which cuts through the city, is now traversed by so many bridges that many residents don’t know their names.

Bo’s departure already appears to be taking an economic toll on Chongqing. Two global private equity firms have reconsidered plans to establish funds in the city because of political uncertainty after the shake-up, according to the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based newspaper.

His supporters continue to exhibit a level of fanaticism online, said Alan Zhang, a blogger in Chongqing.

“Some people said that they wanted to have demonstrations to save Bo,” Zhang said. “Then the site was blocked. But then it opened again. People were upset; some said that they were crying. And then, a couple of days ago, the site was blocked again.”

Kaiman is a special correspondent.

Times staff writer Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles contributed to this report.