“The new face of China?”

Prospect Magazine has a profile of Bo Xilai, who still seems set to come out a winner in the power transfer next year:

Combined with his pedigree as a “princeling”—the offspring of one of China’s revolutionary founding fathers—Bo traffics in the sort of personal politics that are standard for campaigns in the west. And make no mistake, it is a campaign—with Chongqing serving as his operational headquarters. Like a Communist disciple of the American political operative Karl Rove, Bo has crafted a rare brand of populism. His aim is to clinch one of at least seven spots expected to open up on the Politburo Standing Committee, the government’s omnipotent nine-member cabinet, during the power shuffle of China’s central leadership that begins next year. He may just get his wish.

As boss of Chongqing, Bo has prepared for the looming power battle by courting respect from both the rulers and the ruled, arguing that success should be measured by more than just development, long considered the holy grail of national progress. “It’s not about how many tall buildings you have, it’s how happy people are,” he told Chongqing party members in 2009.

Chinese leaders use that kind of benevolent language a lot these days. Last year, Chongqing was named China’s happiest city. Its slogan is “Everybody’s Chongqing,” which according to the state-run media means “all of Chongqing’s people are united in building the city and everybody will live a happy life.” Measure this rhetoric against reality—thousands of people in Chongqing and millions more across China have watched as bulldozers crushed their homes, only to face beatings or detention if they protest—and official compassion seems rather less authentic.

Yet no other modern Chinese leader has cast such a spell over the country as Bo Xilai, a master at manufacturing consent. To ensure that he remains a driving force in Chinese politics from his perch atop the city, Bo has built a personal brand that shimmers, depending on the season, with hues of Clint Eastwood’s take-no-prisoners justice, George Clooney’s swagger and L Ron Hubbard’s religious zeal, smothered in dollops of patriotic flare.

In addition to funnelling state profits into major urban infrastructure projects, he has crushed Chongqing’s entrenched underworld and resurrected the jingoistic wraith of Mao Zedong to convert the city’s grumbling wage-earners into would-be martyrs for the party. These accomplishments give conservatives significant ammunition as they lobby for his selection, but his tactics have also alarmed party veterans.

Not everyone is a fan. Many in the party are dismayed at his celebration of Mao and believe his campaign is regressive.

“Bo Xilai is a dangerous demagogue,” a party member told me. “Look what he’s done, underneath all the red paint and slogans that have nothing to do with today’s China is an adventurous stab for power. There are old heads in Beijing who think he’s out of control and want to put a stop to his rise.”

Whether Bo’s populism will be a strength next year depends on China’s top leadership. But he is not hedging his bets. Last month he took aim at critics who accuse him of favouring ideology over development. He argued that “some comrades have misunderstood, feeling that development of the economy and improving people’s livelihood might be a contradiction,” and said that his motivation is purely to increase “common prosperity.”

This outburst, delivered to a group of journalists in Chongqing, underlines his courtship of the masses. Whatever happens with his bid for the Standing Committee, Bo’s populist campaign style has already rewritten the rules for China’s political class.

“Whether campaigning works for Bo or not, others will start doing this in the future,” Joseph Fewsmith of Boston University told me. “What we’re seeing here may be a change in the way Chinese politics is conducted.”

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Filed under 2012 power transfer, Communist Party

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