Chongqing's party boss dazzles with forthright maverick charm

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 March, 2009, 12:00am

Chongqing has long been famous for its spicy hotpots and beautiful girls - so perhaps it was only fitting that the municipality's party secretary, Bo Xilai, appeared to publicly endorse this image on the sidelines of the National People's Congress at the weekend.

'Chongqing people all have very good skin - red touched with white,' Mr Bo told members of the press, drawing a big laugh.

He said Chongqing's hotpot was good eating. 'You sweat while eating it because it's very spicy, but you just can't stop yourself. The good thing is that hotpot is not really expensive.'

Discussion of skin tone and cuisine are not typical from top communist officials during the national political meeting, but such light-hearted banter is just what dozens of journalists had been expecting when they chose to attend Chongqing's group discussion over dozens of similar meetings.

Mr Bo, a member of the Politburo - the highest executive committee of the Communist Party of China - has long been beloved by the media for his eloquence, quick wit and willingness to speak to the press.

The son of the late state leader Bo Yibo, Mr Bo was rumoured to be the top candidate for vice-premiership last year after he spent more than 20 years at city and provincial positions in Liaoning and a three-year stint as minister of commerce. But the central government sent him to Chongqing after awarding him a seat at the 25-member Politburo.

Being far from the powerful political centre of Beijing has not stopped Mr Bo from creating a buzz at a national level. His initiative to let public servants debate on live broadcasts last year was applauded by the media as a creative way to encourage transparency and improve efficiency in governance. Several provinces soon followed Chongqing's lead in asking their government officials to debate on television.

Also earning Mr Bo credit as a 'people's official' was his handling of a strike by Chongqing taxi drivers, who claimed they were being charged an unreasonably high licence fee.

Rather than calling on security forces to crack down on the strike, as many other provinces have when handling such issues, Mr Bo sat down with taxi driver representatives and worked out a solution.

'Ordinary people are very rational and understanding,' he said on Saturday. 'As long as you address the issue with trust and mutual respect, there's nothing that can't be properly solved.'

Mr Bo's unusual, sometimes maverick way of solving problems has earned him a reputation as a 'troubleshooter' and his availability to the press often maximises the public's impression of his ability.

Zhang Dajun, an independent China watcher who has followed Mr Bo's career, said Mr Bo's methods came partly from his position as a princeling - a term used for family members, usually sons, of top government and party leaders.

'For all grass-roots officials who have moved up by whatever means, great caution about not saying or doing anything wrong is the No1 rule for further promotion because nobody from above will clear up their mess if something does goes wrong,' Mr Zhang said.

'But for a princeling, the need for extreme caution is less of an issue. They tend to show off their individual character more than regular officials.'

One of Mr Bo's legacies as a party boss in Liaoning's Dalian was the city's green cover, thanks to his campaign of planting large trees.

Mr Bo replicated the idea in Chongqing; as its new party boss, he encouraged the planting of big trees in a 'Forest Chongqing' campaign. More forests, he said, would help improve people's living standards and attract more visitors.

But not all are convinced.

Wu Dengming, an environmental activist in Chongqing, said Mr Bo's proposal was a waste of resources as the municipality brought in many expensive trees from other provinces that could not survive in the region.

A number of big trees brought in from Guangdong for millions of yuan have been planted on the streets but are not growing new leaves, and many bamboo plants brought in from Zhejiang could not adapt to the local soil and climate, he said.

'All those green proposals were put in place without serious public debate and scientific research,' Mr Wu said.

'They sounded good but failed to achieve anything.'