Fate of Chinese Political Star Fuels Intrigue at Annual Congress

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Bo Xilai, the charismatic but controversial Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, waits for a question from the media during a press conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 9, 2012.

Bo Xilai, the high-profile Chinese politician whose rise has been damaged by a scandal involving a key deputy, spoke at a press conference Friday in Beijing and denied that he had offered to resign or is himself under investigation. Bo’s appearance followed a day in which he was a noticeably absent from a meeting of delegates to China’s annual parliament, the National People’s Congress, prompting further speculation about his fate.

The NPC is typically a highly choreographed event, and while journalists use rare access to prod officials for unscripted comments, it is not known for political drama. This year, China’s ruling Communist Party also begins a once-in-a-decade transition of its top leaders, giving delegates in Beijing further incentive to avoid controversy. But the sharp reversals that Bo has faced in recent weeks have added unexpected intrigue to this year’s meeting.

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As the Communist Party boss of the southwestern city of Chongqing, Bo, 62, had seen his star rise in recent years on the back of a crackdown on organized crime, promotion of nostalgic Mao-era culture and an economic model that emphasized reducing the gap between rich and poor. But last month, Chongqing vice mayor and former police chief Wang Lijun suddenly appeared at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, a city about 200 miles away from Chongqing. Wang spent the night at the consulate, which was surrounded by police vehicles. U.S. officials have refused to address rumors Wang sought asylum, saying that after a scheduled meeting he left the consulate on his own accord.

After Wang left the consulate, the Chongqing government announced that he was receiving “vacation-style treatment.” Earlier this week, Chongqing Mayor Huang Qifan told Hong Kong-based Phoenix television that Wang had been detained by Chinese state security agents after leaving the U.S. consulate. On Friday, Bo said he took responsibility for everything that happens to Chongqing, but that Wang’s consulate visit had surprised him.

The intrigue around Bo was heightened by the fate of Zhang Mingyu, a Chongqing businessman who last year wrote an open letter accusing another Chongqing tycoon, Weng Zhengjie, of corruption and involvement in organized crime. Zhang, who has since moved to Beijing, told his lawyer Wednesday that Chongqing police had visited him at his apartment. The officers told Zhang that they didn’t want him to discuss connections between Weng and former police chief Wang, says Pu Zhiqiang, Zhang’s lawyer. Zhang’s phone has since been turned off, and Pu says he has been unable to reach his client.

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Bo’s appearance Friday has temporarily calmed speculation about his future. He said his absence Thursday was due to illness. But the Wang Lijun scandal will be harder to dismiss. “I think the top leadership really should be careful,” says Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution. “They cannot say this is a corruption scandal, because the Chinese public will not be persuaded. People will think it is purely factional politics.”

The uncertainty over what information Wang gave to the U.S. consulate will likely mean that his former boss Bo won’t be elevated to the powerful Politburo standing committee when its lineup is reconfigured this fall, says Brooking’s Li. “There is nothing in Chinese politics that is 100%, but everything has consequences” Li says. “I just cannot foresee (Bo) will have a seat on the Politburo standing committee. I think the best thing for him is to resign and to have a ceremonial position.”

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