CHONGQING, China (Reuters) - Former Red Guard leader Tang Dahua says memories of the fanatical bloodshed that tore apart the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing return to him with startling clarity.
Decades after Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution made Chongqing a bloody ideological battleground, the riverside megacity, China's largest, is at the heart of a different political storm - one that has exposed rifts inside the ruling Communist Party after the ouster of the city's charismatic leader, Bo Xilai.
Tang was a prominent leader in the late 1960s battles between Red Guard factions in Chongqing that killed many hundreds in ferocious fighting, and he dismissed the idea that the violence that ravaged China then could return.
But Bo's downfall has exposed ideological fault lines in the government and the public that could trouble the party months before a delicate reshuffle of top leaders.
"I think the center has a real problem on its hands," said Joseph Fewsmith, a professor of Chinese politics at Boston University, referring to central leaders' handling of Bo.
Tang and others who came to mourn at the city's Red Guard cemetery during the traditional "tomb sweeping" holiday said the upheavals around Bo were a reminder that China's political unity is still brittle.
"People forget that it was not so long ago that this country was in such turmoil," said Tang, a balding 67-year-old retired factory manager, of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
Millions were persecuted across China as the Red Guard movement launched by Mao set students against teachers and children against parents in a frenzied purge against those deemed enemies of the revolution, including Bo's father.
"Sometimes it seems as if it happened recently, not 45 years ago. You could say it comes rushing back like I was there," Tang said of the street battles between rival gangs of leftist students and workers using guns and cannons looted from the city's weapons factories.
"People have urged me to write my memoirs, but I know nobody in China would dare publish them," he said after visiting the tomb of a friend speared to death in a 1967 Red Guard battle and leaving a bunch of white chrysanthemums, the flower of mourning.
The cemetery in a vine-shrouded corner of Shapingba Park holds the bodies of hundreds of Red Guards and others killed in Cultural Revolution, their remains under tall pillars inscribed with their names and their school or workplace.
Bo, 62, was also a Red Guard during the first stage of the Cultural Revolution, before he was jailed for five years from 1968 because Mao had turned on his father, according to Chinese historical accounts.
Bo was removed as Chongqing party boss in mid-March, over a month after his vice mayor, Wang Lijun, fled to a nearby U.S. consulate, triggering a scandal compounded by accusations of infighting and abuses of power, and questions about the death of a British man close to Bo's family.
Before his downfall, Bo wrapped himself in Mao-inspired leftist rhetoric and bold egalitarian vows. Unlike removals of defiant provincial-level leaders over corruption charges, Bo's treatment faces open opposition from ardent supporters who see him as the victim of a plot.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao raised the stakes by obliquely criticizing Bo for fanning nostalgia for Maoist times and warning that failure to act against graft and a growing rich-poor gap could rekindle the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
"It is different this time and the impact will be different too," said He Shu, a retired editor and scholar of Communist Party history in Chongqing.
"Bo Xilai clearly had a political goal in promoting his Chongqing model, so now that he's been removed there are political questions about what happens to him and Chongqing," said He. "This is certainly a problem, because in ideological issues it's difficult for the party to achieve a unified view."
For many supporters, that "Chongqing model" gave a healthy socialist glow to the smoggy city on banks of the Yangtze.
Telegenic and sporting sharp business suits in a party of subdued conformists, Bo arrived in Chongqing in 2007 and promoted it as an egalitarian alternative model of growth for China. He vowed to narrow the gap between rich and poor, urban and rural, while courting multi-national investors.
Bo also promoted mass choirs singing "red songs" and books extolling Mao's wisdom and the virtues of revolutionary times.
Since his removal from Chongqing, supporters of those leftist policies have rallied around him and decried the curtailing of Chongqing's "red" songs and television broadcasts.
The neo-Maoist "Utopia" group based in Beijing's university district has been at the forefront of publicly defending Bo.
Fan Jinggang, the general manager of the Utopia website and bookstore, scoffed at the idea that Bo was brought down by his own misdeeds. Bo was taken down by foes of his left-leaning policies, said Fan.
"Wang Lijun and Bo Xilai were both the victims of these forces," Fan, wearing a blue Mao suit, told Reuters.
"The events that have occurred make us think that this was an issue of (political) lines, about whether the positive fruits of Chongqing's pioneering will be rejected," Fan said in the bookstore, where the Internationale and other socialist songs played in the background. "It's not a matter of corruption."
On the Chinese Internet, the Utopia group and other ardently Maoist websites have spread documents claiming to prove that Bo's downfall was engineered by the United States. One widely spread account says the downfall was instigated by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, seeking to cripple Bo's chances of joining the top leadership.
"The core message of this report was that if the Chongqing model spread across China, then it would threaten the United States' strategic interests," Fan said of that report, which he said was believable, if not conclusively proven.
A spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Beijing, Richard Buangan, told Reuters such conspiracy ideas were "ridiculous".
Even if most Chinese would not accept the idea of a Western plot to remove Bo, many believe he was removed by political foes and that his reddish policies were now in jeopardy.
"Look at how much has been achieved in Chongqing, and it's all down to our Secretary Bo Xilai," said Zhou Xianhua, a driver in Chongqing. "Now that he's gone, the place will be a mess."
The leadership's problem in dealing with Bo is complicated by pressure from an opposing liberal stance, including some in the leadership ranks, who say Bo was an opportunistic threat.
Those critics have been emboldened by Bo's fall. Many of them say his crackdown on organized crime mutated into a lawless frenzy resembling a Cultural Revolution-type purge.
Li Zhuang, the most outspoken lawyer to challenge the crackdown, said Bo and deputy mayor Wang Lijun, also police chief, bear blame for torture, wrong convictions and arbitrary seizure of assets that Li said were central to the campaign.
"It truly was a shock that deterred criminals, and Chongqing's public safety did improve, I don't deny that," Li said of Bo's anti-crime measures.
"But what was the price we paid for this improvement? The sacrifice and destruction of rule of law."
Such criticisms would not count for so much in China's top-down political system, except they appear to have some backing from Premier Wen, the head of government who has cast himself as a defender of reformist hopes.
At a news conference a day before Bo's removal from Chongqing was announced, Wen criticized him over Wang Lijun's flight to the embassy, and went further by suggesting that Bo was denying the achievements of reform and encouraging a dangerous nostalgia for the past under Mao.
The public differences over Bo reflect division and uncertainty over the case inside the central government, said a source with close ties to key officials involved.
"The split in the public reflects rifts among leaders over views of Chongqing," said the source, who spoke on condition his name not be used, citing official sensitivity over the case.
The source said conservative officials in the party elite and the military were angered by Wen's comments, which appeared to turn the Wang Lijun scandal into a broader political attack on Bo's policies.
The removal of Bo from the potential new leadership will make establishing unity more difficult when President Hu Jintao and Wen make way for a new generation of leaders, said Wang Wen, a Beijing reporter who was sympathetic to Bo's agenda.
Former Red Guard Tang said that although he understood Premier Wen's warning to heed the lessons of the past, he also believed that Mao was a great man.
"Mao Zedong was the kind that appears only every few centuries. But he wasn't a saint, he also committed many mistakes," Tang said after meeting former classmates to remember comrades buried or memorialized in the cemetery.
"The number remembered here is only a small number of those killed. We shouldn't forget that."
Editing by Don Durfee and Nick Macfie