CHONGQING, China (Reuters) - The “stick men” of China’s sprawling riverside city of Chongqing at first didn’t believe that Bo Xilai, the charismatic and ambitious local Communist Party chief, had been pushed out by national leaders.
Before his downfall, Bo appeared to be on his way to a place at the very centre of power, bringing with him the vision of bold socialist growth that had made him so popular in this teeming southwestern city.
The weather-beaten stick men, who tote luggage on bamboo poles up and down the city’s steep hillsides, were meant to be among the beneficiaries of his plans to improve life for farmers and migrant workers.
“Has he retired or something? What’s the matter? Wasn’t he at the national parliament last week?,” asked Cao Changde, a luggage carrier in Chongqing who said he could not read and did not watch television.
“Bo Xilai was a good man. He made life a lot better here,” he added as he waited for work near luxury shops.
That sentiment could challenge the government on a much wider stage if it mounts a campaign to discredit or punish Bo.
It is far from clear whether his political demise is simply personal or also means the end of the “Chongqing model” of more equal growth that he championed.
Bo, 62, was sacked on Thursday, a day after a very public rebuke by Premier Wen Jiabao.
His chances of entering the inner circle had already dimmed after Vice Mayor Wang Lijun, previously his longtime police chief, turned up in February at the U.S. consulate in nearby Chengdu, where he stayed until he was coaxed out and placed under investigation.
Despite the success of his policies, which spurred rapid development on the streets of Chongqing and Dalian where he was previously mayor, his Communist Red revival campaigns had alarmed members of the top leadership like Premier Wen, who had suffered the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.
His brash style and ill-disguised efforts to campaign for high office also ran counter to Communist Party practice of emphasizing collective leadership over personality cults.
In short, Bo’s self promotion appeared to rub the party elite the wrong way, and when the Wang Lijun incident broke, he was left to fend for himself.
The former commerce minister, who favors sharp business suits, attracted an unlikely but ardent following among Maoists, left-wing intellectuals hoping to break free of market dominance, and ordinary Chinese yearning for a fairer society.
Some of his supporters told Reuters they believed there had been a conspiracy to trash Chongqing’s bold experiment.
“They’re using this to attack Chongqing and attack Bo Xilai,” said Fan Jinggang, the general manager of Utopia, a Beijing-based website and bookstore that espouses leftwing ideas inspired by Mao Zedong and Karl Marx.
On Friday, the website of Utopia was inaccessible. A staff member who answered the telephone said it was a “technical problem”, and would not elaborate.
Bo’s effort to wrap himself in socialist rectitude was helped by his status a “princeling”, a child of the founding revolutionary elite who served under Mao.
He was as coy in public as other politicians about hopes for a spot in the next Standing Committee, the inner core of party power. Yet his frequent, often flamboyant public appearances left few doubts about his ambitions.
The secretive selection process culminates in a Communist Party Congress late in 2012, when the current leaders give up their party posts, and a national parliament session in early 2013, when they step down from their government positions.
Bo’s economic model has yielded China’s highest growth rates.
From 2007 to last year, Chongqing’s economy grew an average annual 15.8 percent, according to government data. In 2011 it was 16.4 percent, the fastest growing urban region and ahead of Shanghai and Beijing, according to Chongqing government data.
Last year, Bo announced plans to grant 5 million of rural residents permanent urban residential status over 5 years. He also vowed to shrink the ratio between average urban and rural incomes from 3.3 to 1, to 2.5 to 1. Carved out of Sichuan province as an independent political unit in 1997, Chongqing includes both city and a broad swath of countryside.
Accelerating urbanization and narrowing inequality are top priorities for the Communist Party, which fears they could result in unrest and threaten its grip on power.
That has created a receptive audience among party officials for new ideas to address in the run-up to the coming leadership handover.
“The problems that didn’t demand a solution before are becoming urgent,” said Zhang Musheng, a retired central government official. “There’s now growing competition over the options to tackle these problems.”
As late as last Friday, Bo had sounded combative about his future and the Chongqing model, using his last media briefing before his dismissal to deride foes.
“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,” he told a room jammed with journalists and Chongqing delegates to the national parliament.
“Some comrades have the mentality that only after the cake has grown big can you talk about how to slice it,” he said.
“But that’s not my view. Only if the cake is sliced well does everyone have the enthusiasm so the cake can grow bigger.”
DISMAY AT BO‘S DEPARTURE
The smoggy skyline of Chongqing is broken up by apartment blocks that have shot up along with the city’s GDP. They include the “Minxin Jiayuan” complex, the city’s flagship effort to provide subsidized rental housing for poorer residents moving in from the countryside.
Some of them were upset by Bo’s sudden departure.
“Bo Xilai did many things for Chongqing. He changed it a lot. Look around you and you can see that,” said resident Zhang Hongsong.
The announcement of Bo’s departure carried by the Chongqing government’s official microblog garnered hundreds of supportive comments for him. Beyond his economic policies, Bo is popular for his aggressive campaign to crackdown on organised crime.
Liu Shan‘er, a small man in his 60s selling pineapple slices on sticks on a Chongqing street, said he had seen the television news report about Bo’s dismissal.
“They didn’t say anything about the good things he did. Not one word,” said Liu. “I‘m not saying he’s all good. We ordinary people never know that much. But could he be all bad?”
But like other residents, Liu tempered his dismay with resignation. “We ordinary folks are just like trees that have to sway with the wind,” he said. “There’s no good making a fuss. We just have to live with the leaders who get appointed.”
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Don Durfee and Jonathan Thatcher