CHONGQING, CHINA – In this steamy metropolis of more than 30 million people on the banks of the Yangtze River, it doesn’t take much to find people who still talk in reverential terms about Bo Xilai, Chongqing’s incarcerated and disgraced former Communist Party head who was removed from office more than five years ago.
By contrast, it is difficult to find anyone who has similar regard for Sun Zhengcai, who lost the same Chongqing party job in July to become the subject of a formal investigation announced last week after being accused by Beijing of failing to rid the city of Bo’s influence and legacy.
People remember Bo fondly as a can-do leader who improved law and order, turbo-charged the economy, and rejuvenated dilapidated old city quarters.
“Bo did a great job with law and order in the city,” said Tan Heping, one of the city’s dwindling number of iconic “bang-bang,” or “stick men,” who carry loads on bamboo poles up and down the city’s steep hillsides. “Sun is nowhere near as impressive — he is far from what Bo Xilai was. I can’t see what he has done.”
Both Bo and Sun were removed in the months ahead of gatherings of top leaders at the Chinese Communist Party National Congress, which is held every five years and is where major leadership changes are ratified. Sun took over in Chongqing in November 2012 from top party official Zhang Dejiang, who held the position for just eight months after Bo’s departure.
At the 2012 Congress, Xi Jinping was confirmed as China’s national leader and at this autumn’s Congress he is widely expected to consolidate his power by moving supporters into key leadership positions, and as a result have a greater say in any succession planning.
The telegenic Bo, regarded widely as one of the most charismatic Chinese politicians of his generation, was a contender for the top leadership before being felled for corruption in a sensational 2012 scandal that also saw his wife jailed for murdering a British businessman. Bo’s popularity, ruthlessly ambitious behavior and individualistic streak had been seen among top officials at the time as a potential threat to the central leadership.
Marrying his overt western-style retail politician charm with a Mao-era propaganda strategy, Bo had bypassed Communist Party messaging to build his own brand. Tapping into public anger at official corruption, he espoused a return to simpler, more traditional Chinese values, and organized mass rallies of tens of thousands singing patriotic revolutionary-era songs amid a sea of red flags.
And with police chief and right-hand man Wang Lijun, he launched a high-profile campaign against Chongqing’s deep-rooted organized crime rings.
There are no polls to consult but on a recent trip to the city, a Reuters reporter interviewed about a dozen people, from shopkeepers and laborers to coal mine owners and lawyers, and all of them said they were still positive about Bo’s reign.
The Chongqing government and the State Council Information Office, which doubles as the Communist Party’s spokesman’s office, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
“Bo was doing things for us ordinary people, things that you can see,” said Wu Hong, a clothing wholesaler.
To be sure, there are some in Chongqing who strongly disagree.
Li Zhuang, a Chongqing lawyer and vehement Bo critic who was jailed for two years and six months after defending suspected mafia bosses, said Bo and Wang’s purported organized crime sweep resulted in “large numbers of unjust and false charges” and led to a shakedown of many legitimate and innocent business people. Li, who was contacted by phone, said Sun had done nothing to overturn the verdicts of those he believes were wronged.
But for local coal boss Jin Yihu, even being incarcerated at the height of Bo’s crackdown against organized crime in 2011 has failed to dent his admiration.
A dispute over the mine’s ownership saw a business rival report Jin to police, claiming he was a mob boss. Jin spent seven months in detention before his name was cleared.
“Even then I don’t hate him,” Jin said in reference to Bo. “To compare Bo and Sun is to compare heaven and earth.”
In what turned out to be an ominous signal for Sun, the party’s anti-graft watchdog — the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection — said in February that Chongqing had failed to rid itself of the “pernicious influence” of Bo.
Last week, confirming an earlier report, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection — the party’s anti-graft watchdog — announced that Sun had been formally placed under investigation for “serious violations of discipline,” a party euphemism that usually refers to corruption.
Bo received a life sentence in 2013 after being found guilty of bribery, abuse of power and embezzlement. Wang was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2012 on mostly similar charges.
Bo’s downfall — and President Xi Jinping’s tight grip on power — has seen provincial leaders take a much more conservative approach while jockeying for promotion, lest they also be seen as political threats or step out of line.
Sun’s conservative leadership style in Chongqing, analysts say, may have been compounded by a belief that he just needed to bide his time, stay low-key and avoid any major accidents.
But Sun’s esoteric signature plan to re-zone the city into five “functional areas,” including an urban core and ecological conservation zone, failed to resonate with many people.
“It’s impractical and hollow,” said Chongqing lawyer Zhou Litai.
Sun’s risk aversion was evident in a crackdown on coal mining in the city after a mine explosion last October killed 33 and made national headlines.
The Chongqing government responded by forcing all coal mines producing less than 90,000 tons a year to halt production, closing 181 mines across the city according to state media reports. Production remains halted, industry sources told Reuters.
Some mine owners say the government reaction was excessive.
Coal mine owner Jin said all affected coal mine owners were under severe financial distress and that most of his company’s 300 employees had been furloughed.
Sun’s replacement as Chongqing’s party boss, Chen Min’er, has lost no time in calling on city officials to rid the city of the ideas of Bo, and his former police chief Wang.
“Resolutely eliminate the evil legacy of Bo and Wang thought — from thinking, politics and work style,” the official Chongqing Daily reported Chen as saying last week.
On Wednesday, official provincial newspapers across the country carried front page stories saying their respective provincial governments had held meetings which “resolutely upheld” the party’s decision to investigate Sun.