Bo Xilai

Princeling undaunted

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 June, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 June, 2001, 12:00am

BO XILAI is very much a hands-on sort of guy. The governor of Liaoning Province puts a hand on your shoulder to direct you to a seat so a meeting can begin. He pokes you in the chest to make a point when speaking at close range. And he grasps your elbow firmly to steer you out of the door when the talking is over.

It is more the style of a savvy United States politician working the precincts than that of a Chinese cadre in charge of economic reform. But if Mr Bo is to help modernise the elderly industries of his northeastern province - in the heart of China's Rust Belt - he needs some major departures from the usually cautious ways of socialist leaders.

Mr Bo believes he is up to the job - though many outside analysts contend that what he really has his hands on is an economic mess. Too many Liaoning factories still use technology from Soviet days, turn out products nobody wants and are best known for making losses. Industrial reforms have abolished 1.2 million old jobs even as newcomers enter the work force. But Mr Bo appears undaunted.

'Over the next five years, we aim to resolve the unemployment issue', by creating three million new jobs, he said.

This is to be accomplished by attracting investment worth US$100 billion (40 per cent from abroad), 'giving the private sector a free rein' and developing rural industries. 'The aim is to shift the industrial mix from a focus on heavy industries to the service industries,' Mr Bo said.

Software and telecommunications are on his list, but so is producing Liaoning stand-bys such as petrochemicals, steel, vehicles and power systems. No easy task. But neither has Mr Bo's road to the top of his province been easy.

By his own account, he has been both helped and hindered by the fact that he is a 'princeling', the child of a former high official. His father is Bo Yibo, a revolutionary who served with Mao Zedong on the fabled Long March and later held senior government posts. But Chairman Mao had him jailed on fabricated charges during the Cultural Revolution and the young Mr Bo suffered too.

Bo Yibo was tortured by Red Guards and was rehabilitated only after Mao died. This sad episode also put Bo Xilai in jail from 1967 to 1972, basically for being his father's son.

Since then, Mr Bo has become one of the relatively few princelings with a solid record of achievement. He was a successful mayor of Dalian for eight years, where he upgraded both the environment and business climate of Liaoning's main sea port.

Following a huge corruption scandal in Shenyang (one city leader gambled away millions of yuan in Macau), Mr Bo was sent to that provincial capital as governor in January to clean up both city and province. He calls this an ongoing battle.

'As long as corruption crops up we will deal with it resolutely . . . We will adopt any [necessary] measures, including strict supervision of leading officials,' he said.

His record makes him a leading member of the so-called fourth generation of leaders - those in their 40s or 50s who are now moving into senior roles.

Some analysts predict great things for him nationally, but he demurs. '. . . I am a small potato and should not be included in any kind of leadership.'

In any case, he insists he wants to remain in Liaoning.

'If you want to do something successfully, you must stay in a position for at least five years. Otherwise, you can achieve nothing . . . I really would like to stay as the governor of Liaoning.'

Then, he will have reached the retirement age of 60. That is when even younger leaders will assume power. 'My generation is a transitional stage, and I believe the most capable persons belong to the fifth generation,' he said.

He calls them better educated, more skilled in English, familiar with computers and more qualified to deal with the complex outside world. Even so, those of Mr Bo's age are unlike their parents.

'The elder revolutionaries worked very hard and they lived simple lives,' he said. 'As far as I can remember, my parents never had a day off; they just worked and worked. . . they ate the same food every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If I gained any advantage from them, it was the example they set for me - to be hard-working and to live simply. And after the Cultural Revolution, they were able to give me a good education.'

However, being the son of a vice-premier did bring problems. 'In the beginning, some people had questions about me. They wondered if I could understand the concerns of ordinary people, if a person like me could think like them. But as time passed, their perceptions changed.'

In the end, Mr Bo said those doubts helped him. 'Their suspicions . . . gave me pressure and placed constraints on my behaviour. It required me to work harder and try to avoid mistakes, even small mistakes.'

Hard work seems to be part of his regime. The governor rises at 6.30am and seldom gets to bed before midnight. He does not smoke or drink, and takes brisk, long walks. When officials call to make reports, he often makes them walk with him.

'That way they cannot just read their prepared notes but must explain things in their own words,' he said. 'And they cannot take notes on what I say either.'

His father got into trouble as early as 1951 when, as finance minister, he tried to slow down Mao's rural collectivisation programme. Governor Bo seems to have inherited that scepticism about dogma.

According to Cheng Li, a professor of government at Hamilton College in New York state who has conducted a comprehensive study on fourth-generation leaders, Mr Bo was enthusiastic about Western liberal economic theories in the 1980s but has grown more cautious.

Mr Bo put it differently: 'I am not good at academic theory and do not subscribe to economic models. I am a very practical person; if it is good, then it is my choice,' he said.

'My task is to find jobs for the workers. I do not know what theory that is.'

This attitude resembles the 'seek truth from facts' approach of the late Deng Xiaoping, who started the open-door economic policy which Mr Bo called 'great . . . It was as if he worked in a helicopter and we worked on the ground'.

But Mr Bo is a careful enough politician to praise his bosses in Beijing for national policies which make provincial gains possible. President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji have 'maintained 12 years of stability and this is their greatest contribution to the Chinese economy', he said.

Within this framework, Mr Bo said he wanted to expand Liaoning's economy and connect it to the world. That may be standard talk around China, but with Mr Bo it has taken some special turns.

As mayor of Dalian, he required middle-school pupils to study more than computers and software. They also had to play golf and tennis, practice Western ballet, singing and the piano, and learn to swim with proper strokes. The goal: 'To make them different from our generation'.

'My task is to find jobs for the workers. I do not know what theory that is'

Graphic: box05gbz