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NEW YORK TIMES


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China, in old tradition, races to airbrush fallen leader out of public life

By DAN LEVIN

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 02:03 a.m. HST, May 06, 2012



CHONGQING, China >> Until recently, visitors who arrived at the urban planning exhibition hall here were greeted with a high-tech shrine to Bo Xilai, who served as the municipality’s charismatic Communist Party chief. A video recounting Bo’s “smash black” crackdown on organized crime featured mug shots of gangsters emblazoned on tombstones. Maoist revolutionary songs blared from speakers in the “red culture” wing. Lasers zipped across the “honest government” gallery.

But in February, two days after Bo’s police chief, Wang Lijun, sought refuge in a U.S. consulate, apparently with evidence of a murder plot hatched by Bo’s wife, the “smash black” exhibit shut its doors. The remaining galleries were closed last month after Bo was removed from his Communist Party posts in a widening corruption scandal that is roiling the Chinese government. Today, the entire floor is cordoned off.

The sudden demise of the exhibit reflects the headlong race under way to expunge all traces of Bo and his political fingerprints from the city he spent five years governing. In seeking to airbrush Bo out of public life, party mandarins in Beijing have dusted off a strategy perfected during the Cultural Revolution and further tweaked during the political purges that followed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

“There is a manual on how to delete the legacies of a fallen leader, and they’ve got it down to the smallest details,” said Minxin Pei, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California.

The results have been swift and efficient. Residents say that just 15 hours after Bo’s ouster, Chongqing’s satellite television station, which he had required to broadcast only commercial-free “red culture” programming, began airing advertisements. Then came a media campaign meant to destroy his reputation.

But the party’s sudden vilification of Bo and his once-lauded projects has laid bare its thin ideological marrow. After years of instructing citizens to revere Bo, the party has aggravated public cynicism by orchestrating his hasty downfall.

“People here just don’t trust the central government,” said a local magazine journalist, who described the orders from editors to stop reporting on Bo’s accomplishments. “Now they’re telling us Bo’s a bad guy. But no government official is innocent. At least we know our lives got better after he came.”

As the self-appointed mascot of the Chongqing Model — his signature formula of state-led investment projects and populist politicking — Bo used the urban landscape as a canvas for his agenda. The local government planted thousands of Bo’s beloved ginkgo trees, organized “red culture” performances and stationed police officers throughout the city. To ensure residents linked the initiatives to Bo, his underlings slathered the city in billboards branded with slogans, including “Safe Chongqing” and “Healthy Chongqing.”

“They’re all gone,” said a downtown magazine vendor recently, nodding at a wall where three weeks ago city workers replaced the propaganda signs with ideology-free images of trees and skyscrapers.

The Chinese government is rushing to cauterize the political damage just months before the party orchestrates a once-in-a-decade power transfer to a new generation of leaders. Bo, the scion of one of modern China’s revolutionary founders, once aspired to be among those who effectively run the country by joining the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee.

Bo has also been scrubbed from boardrooms here, despite his success at luring multinational corporations to Chongqing and overseeing the country’s highest rate of growth. Gone are the portraits that graced office walls, say those who work for state-backed enterprises. In this era of instantaneously shifting loyalties, any perceived allegiance to Bo could prove disastrous. Dozens of officials have been detained as the central government moves to dismantle his support network.

At the headquarters of the Liangjiang New Area, billed as China’s third-largest development zone, visiting delegations were once greeted with a video of Bo championing the area’s industrial prowess. The screens are now dark.

Some local business executives hope Bo’s famous preference for state-owned enterprises over private corporations will fade with him. In rejecting the Chongqing Model, the municipality’s new leadership, under the party chief Zhang Dejiang, appears to be showing a greater interest in the private sector.

Wu Xu, the chairman of Chongqing Sincere Group, a property development company, heaped leaden praise on Zhang while carefully avoiding any mention of his predecessor. Chain smoking in his corner office, Wu lauded Zhang for holding a meeting of private-business owners soon after his arrival. “That never happened before,” he said. “There’s been a big change. We are more confident in this business environment.”

But the purge has also created headaches for entrepreneurs.

In interviews, some lamented the waste of time and money that was spent currying favor with Bo’s bureaucrats. One real estate executive said that his two most powerful contacts were detained after Bo’s ouster and that all his proposals were in limbo. He dreads the prospect of having to grease new palms but sees no other option. “If I don’t take the new officials out to expensive dinners and buy them gifts, I’m finished,” the executive said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals. Bo took pride in his anti-corruption bona fides, but businesses were often forced to pay monthly or annual bribes to local government agencies, business owners said. If they refused, officials would shut them down.

That extortion racket has continued under the new administration, many said. The owner of a hostel in the city center said he was forced to pay his annual bribe twice this year, first to officials working under Bo and now to those under Zhang.

The impact of Bo’s downfall has yet to shake most residents’ lives too deeply. The ginkgos, for now, continue to be watered and the elderly still sing revolutionary anthems. One recent afternoon, Dan Jingli, a bubbly retiree in her mid-60s, was belting out a classic ballad with her friends in the city’s Shapingba Park. Taking a breather, Dan said she could not care less that those melodies were no longer passwords to the leadership’s favor. Maoist culture would survive long after those fighting for power had been forgotten. “Bo is gone,” she said. “But red songs are perennial.”

Now that Bo has been excommunicated, news of Chongqing’s heavy debt is beginning to emerge. All those public works cost money — the ginkgo trees alone cost $1.5 billion a year to plant and maintain, according to the state news media — while the municipality spent $15 billion on new low-income housing. With rising budget deficits and a lack of political will to sustain Bo’s pet projects, residents are wondering what will disappear.

Indeed, nobody is sure what the new Chongqing’s longer-term policies will be. “We know what’s wrong but not what’s right,” said the real estate executive.

He does not expect any clarification until after Beijing’s party shuffle in the fall. That is when it will become clear if Zhang, the party chief, is a permanent replacement or just a placeholder. Such limbo is especially worrying for a government obsessed with stability — and the revenue from property development that feeds municipal coffers.

“Under each new leader every policy changes,” the executive said. “Even the trees.”






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