CHONGQING, China (Reuters) - China’s campaign to bury fallen politician Bo Xilai under a litany of alleged misdeeds risks dragging down the ruling Communist Party’s own standing among citizens who have already grown to assume that graft and abuse pervade it.
Bo is almost surely headed for trial and jail after the party leadership on Friday accused him of multiple offences dating back to his early years in government, including taking bribes, engaging in “improper sexual relations” and meddling in an inquiry into his wife’s murder of a British man.
In Bo’s former stronghold of Chongqing, a haze-draped, riverside metropolis in southwest China, over the weekend many residents greeted the news of Bo’s spectacular fall and alleged crimes with sympathy or cynicism.
“Who knows if the charges against him are true - none of us were there. The government can say what it likes about him. The only truth we will ever know for sure is all the hard work he put into improving Chongqing,” said Gao Zhigeng, a machinery factory worker on the cusp of retirement.
“Bo lost that game, that’s all,” said Gao, wearing an old-style Mao cap while he strolled past the luxury stores around the Liberation Monument in central Chongqing.
The Chinese Communist Party revealed the accusations against Bo at the same time that it announced a November 8 date for a congress that will bring in a new generation of top leaders - a line-up that Bo yearned to join.
Even with Bo gone, China’s emerging leaders face the lingering belief among many citizens that some version of Bo’s misdeeds is the rule, rather than the exception, of politics in this one-party state.
State media have tried to separate Bo from the party elite he once belonged to, calling his fall a victory that shows the party’s determination to eradicate corruption. But on the streets of Chongqing, few people believed that message.
“What has happened to him is all because of infighting amongst a political elite - it’s got nothing to do with anything else,” said Liu Yunli, a 36-year-old worker in a logistics firm.
“Look at how developed we are here, and it’s all because of Bo Xilai,” he said, gesturing to a light railway line built while Bo was in power. “If there was some corruption then so what?”
Purging Bo will not free the government from suspicions that abuses are rife, even if not to the same extreme as Bo, wrote Beijing magazine editor Zhou Zhixing in a comment on the case.
“Bo is just a sample, and there are quite a few like him in officialdom,” Zhou wrote for the “Consensus Net,” a Chinese website for political debate. “The problem does not lie in personal defects, but in the system.”
Previously a commerce minister who favored sleek suits and expensive-looking ties, Bo arrived in Chongqing in 2007, and transformed himself into a combative advocate of populist welfare policies that appealed to many Chinese people as a cure to social divisions and discontent brought by unfettered growth.
Bo, 63, and his then police chief, Wang Lijun, also won nationwide admiration for an uncompromising crackdown on organized crime, which their critics said was a thinly veiled effort to purge enemies and confiscate wealth.
Bo’s policies and brash self-promotion, however, stirred unease among some officials, including premier Wen Jiabao. A day before Bo’s ousting in March, Wen accused him of flirting with the discredited ways of Mao Zedong’s era.
Criticism of Bo was largely confined to the margins of political life until February of this year, when Wang fled into a United States consulate for over 24 hours, exposing allegations that Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, had in November murdered Neil Heywood, a British businessman who was once a friend, after a financial dispute.
In August, Gu was given a suspended death sentence, which effectively means a long jail term, after being found guilty of poisoning Heywood to death.
On September 24, former police chief Wang was sentenced to 15 years in jail for his crimes, including his defection and seeking to hush up the murder case that implicated Gu.
The latest party statement on the case said that in the murder scandal, Bo “abused his powers of office”, a charge that appears to reflect accusations from Wang’s trial suggesting Bo tried to stymie a police investigation. The government also accused Bo of taking huge bribes and other unspecified crimes.
Before Bo is charged and tried, investigators must complete an inquiry and decide to indict him. China’s prosecutors and courts come under party control, and are most unlikely to challenge the accusations already leveled.
Still, in Chongqing, some said the inevitable guilty verdict against Bo was about politics, not justice for Heywood.
“They’re only picking on him as he was too good at his job and too good at being a politician, and that made people in Beijing jealous,” said Yang Chun, who works in a Chongqing nightclub. “It’s all about politics. He did much for Chongqing and we are very grateful.”
Writing and additional reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Daniel Magnowski