Embattled Chinese leadership contender defends policies

BEIJING Fri Mar 9, 2012 4:05am EST

China's Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai reacts during the opening ceremony of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing March 5, 2012. Bo, a senior Chinese politician whose prospects for the top leadership are under a cloud, appeared before the media on March 9, 2012 in an apparent bid to dispel rumours that a scandal involving a one-time top ally had forced him out. Picture taken March 5, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Lee

China's Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai reacts during the opening ceremony of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing March 5, 2012. Bo, a senior Chinese politician whose prospects for the top leadership are under a cloud, appeared before the media on March 9, 2012 in an apparent bid to dispel rumours that a scandal involving a one-time top ally had forced him out. Picture taken March 5, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Lee

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BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese politician whose ambitions for rising in the Communist Party leadership are under a cloud on Friday defended his goal of a return to Mao-inspired socialism and derided his foes after an aide triggered a political storm by fleeing to a U.S. consulate.

Bo Xilai, the Communist Party head of the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, told reporters that he was taken by surprise when the city's vice mayor, Wang Lijun, fled to the consulate in nearby Chengdu city last month.

"I truly never expected that he would leave like this," Bo told reporters, who pressed him about Wang's mysterious flight during a gathering of Chongqing delegates attending China's annual parliament meeting in Beijing.

"Wang Lijun is being investigated by the relevant central agencies," he said. "When the results are concluded, they will be released to everyone."

Leaders have assembled in Beijing for the annual National People's Congress session. But their traditional show of unity has been unsettled by speculation over whether Bo will be denied a spot in the next central leadership to be unveiled at the 18th Party Congress late this year.

The telegenic Bo's hopes for climbing from riverside Chongqing into the Communist Party elite Standing Committee took a blow when Wang fled to the consulate. Wang left the consulate after more than a day inside, led away by officials.

In his first questioning by media since Wang fled, Bo played down suggestions that the episode could also bring him down.

"It seems that anywhere, no matter how well things are going, you need to exercise vigilance and prevent the unexpected from occurring," said Bo, dressed in his usual dark blue suit and white shirt.

He fended off questions about his own prospects, grimacing and rolling his eyes at repeated questions from Hong Kong and Western reporters about Wang.

"That's totally a rumor, totally imaginary. There's no such thing as a resignation," he said when asked whether he had offered to quit. He also denied being questioned about the case.

"For myself, speaking from my heart, I've never associated myself with anything specific about the 18th Congress", Bo told a throng of reporters, when asked about his ambitions.

Wang was a key figure in an anti-organized crime drive pursued by Bo, 62, who has encouraged a revival of socialist culture from the time of Mao Zedong, while seeking to transform Chongqing's economy into a model of more equal growth.

ENEMIES "POURING FILTH"

The 18th Congress will see China's biggest leadership transition in nearly a decade. The interest in Bo on the sidelines of the parliament underscored how much he has stirred up usually stolid Chinese politics ahead of that succession.

Bo gave a combative defense of policies that have made Chongqing a controversial bastion of traditional "red" socialist culture and a model egalitarian economic development denounced by pro-free market critics. He suggested that unspecified enemies were vilifying both Chongqing and his family.

"If only a minority of people are wealthy, then we would be heading towards capitalism and we would have failed. If a new capitalist class emerges, then we'll really have taken the wrong route," said Bo, a former commerce minister, citing statistics indicating that China's inequality is dangerously high.

He called "nonsense" reports, widely circulated on the Chinese internet, that his son, Bo Guagua, was seen driving around Beijing in a red Ferrari sports car. He said Guagua's education at Oxford and Harvard was paid by scholarships.

"These people who have formed criminal blocs have wide social ties and the ability to shape opinion," he said of his critics. "There are also, for example, people who have poured filth on Chongqing, and poured filth on myself and my family."

Wang Lijun's case has been widely discussed in China on Twitter-like microblogging sites, though state-controlled papers have remained mostly silent on the issue and Chinese reporters covering parliament say they have been told not to raise it.

Bo's father, Bo Yibo, was a revolutionary comrade of Mao Zedong, making his son one of the "princelings" - sons and daughters of the Communist Party's elite.

Asked whether he would bear responsibility for Wang's actions, Bo said: "As long as it happened in Chongqing, I have responsibility for it."

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

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