Flamboyant Chinese princeling falls from grace

BEIJING Thu Mar 15, 2012 5:30am EDT

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BEIJING (Reuters) - The writing was perhaps already on the wall for Bo Xilai, the controversial former top official of China's southwestern city of Chongqing, when he appeared at this month's parliamentary meeting, alternately chastened and combative.

In past parliament sessions Bo has swept in, all smiles and lanky grace, preceded by a wave of TV cameras and popping flashbulbs, but last week he was uncharacteristically restrained when he appeared at a rare and packed news conference on the sidelines of the annual meeting.

Bo rolled his eyes at repeated questions from foreign reporters about a scandal involving a one-time top aide, then-Vice Mayor Wang Lijun, and the normally effusive state media and parliament delegates kept their distance.

Wang, Bo's longtime former police chief, went to ground in the U.S. Consulate in nearby Chengdu last month until he was coaxed out and placed under investigation.

"I certainly never expected this," Bo said of Wang's flight. "I felt that it happened extremely suddenly."

News of his own change of fortune came just as suddenly.

On Thursday, a terse report from the official Xinhua news agency announced that Beijing had sacked Bo from his post, all but snuffing out his chances of rising in a Party leadership transition late this year.

The outspoken Chongqing party chief had mounted a daring bid for the nation's top political body, the Party's Politburo Standing Committee, by appealing to millions with no vote -- journalists, common people and Internet users.

He captured national attention with a crackdown on gangs and corrupt police officers in Chongqing, China's teeming wartime capital, and brought about stronger economic development and sharper growth. But he also alienated political peers.

The anti-mafia campaign nabbed thousands of people, including the city's powerful police chief, and tapped into popular anger over the corruption and collusion that has accompanied China's economic boom.

"Fighting organized crime is for the sake of letting the people enjoy peace and creating a clean social environment in Chongqing," Bo said last week, defending his record.

"We are sure of ourselves and free of regrets."

TOO MUCH FLAIR?

Bo, a former China commerce minister and mayor of the northeastern port city of Dalian where he wooed foreign investors, dresses sharply and has a flair for the dramatic.

His directness and independent streak impressed foreigners but annoyed peers, who prefer to rule through backdoor consensus and often stilted slogans.

Analysts have noted that no one in the top leadership has publicly praised Bo or the crackdown on organized crime.

On Wednesday, Premier Wen Jiabao told his annual news conference that Chongqing's leadership should reflect on the Wang incident, and also obliquely criticized Bo's drive to revive songs and culture from the heyday of Mao's Communist revolution.

Bo, 62, is a son of late vice-premier Bo Yibo, making the younger Bo a "princeling" -- the children of incumbent, retired or late revolutionary leaders.

His wife is a lawyer and their son, Bo Guagua, was educated at an expensive, elite British private school and then Oxford University. The younger Bo's Facebook photos from parties caused their own Internet stir.

Bo labeled the gossip about his family absurd.

"There are many people who have poured filth on Chongqing, including pouring filth on me and my family, even talking about my son studying abroad and driving a red Ferrari -- utter nonsense -- and I feel outraged. Utter nonsense," he told reporters last week.

While wooing investors, Bo also envisioned low-cost housing for rural poor and migrant laborers, designed to appeal to President Hu Jintao's goal of creating a "harmonious society".

He called his vision "Peaceful Chongqing." It included text messages with Maoist slogans, singing old-style revolutionary songs by civil servants, who also had to adopt poor families and staff petition offices where citizens can complain.

But the quick, sensationalist anti-mafia trials alarmed legal activists. One case in particular upset reformists -- the 18-month jail sentence for high-flying lawyer Li Zhuang, who was accused of instructing his client, a gang leader, to falsely claim he had been tortured.

Bo has had difficulty shaking off the suspicion of some critics, both inside and outside China, that he is more concerned with his own rise than China's.

"I didn't trust Bo Xilai because he seemed so liberal in so many of his positions, and then all of a sudden became this leftist nationalist when he moved to Chongqing," said David Zweig, a China scholar at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

"I think that surprised people and suggests that he was much more of a chameleon than dedicated to a particular set of policies."

(Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby, and Sisi Tang in Hong Kong; Editing by Don Durfee, Brian Rhoads and Michael Perry)

(This version of the story fixes a typo in the lead, spelling of Bo's father's name in 17th paragraph)

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