Charismatic Bo shakes the leadership stakes
Shi Jiangtao in Beijing
Chongqing Communist Party chief Bo Xilai has appeared triumphant in Beijing this past week, easily stealing the limelight at the otherwise dull and ritualistic annual parliamentary session.
Basking in the international media spotlight, Bo has made little attempt to conceal his zeal for his maverick crusade against organised crime gangs in the southwestern metropolis and his ambition for higher office.
His brand of ease and charm is on full display at the National People's Congress, in sharp contrast to the rigid and faceless demeanour of the army of bureaucrats.
Several overseas media organisations even lavished him with the title, 'China's most charismatic politician', fuelling speculation about his chance for a promotion in the run-up to the 18th Communist Party congress in 2012.
In late 2007, when Bo, then commerce minister, was appointed Chongqing's party chief at the height of his career, many thought he had lost his chance to contend for higher positions because he had left the political centre stage at a crucial time.
But now, Bo, 60, a Politburo member with a populist touch and a member of a faction of the party known as the 'princelings', has bounced back with the latest success of the anti- triad drive and has become one of the top contenders for a seat in the so-called fifth generation leadership.
Other leading candidates include his predecessor in Chongqing, Wang Yang, now the Guangdong party chief. Wang, 55, also a Politburo member, served as Chongqing party boss from 2005 to 2007.
Although both Bo and Wang are believed to have all the right credentials for elevation with solid portfolios at both central and local governments, their rivalry is seen by analysts as an indicator leadership succession and attracts much attention.
There is little doubt that Bo, son of Bo Yibo, once one of the party's most influential elders, has reaped most of the political gains from the relentless war on triads that he kicked off in June and the extensive media coverage of it.
Not surprisingly, his crackdown has won applause among ordinary people in Chongqing, who had complained about gang-related crimes for years. Many people outside Chongqing even expressed wishes that their local leaders would follow Bo's example to take similar action against organised crime.
'Bo is helping his chances for elevation because senior leaders realise the party needs greater popular support,' said Professor Gordon Chang, a US-based China expert and author of The Coming Collapse of China.
He said Bo's showmanship has shown the future of Communist politics, in which 'most candidates for senior leadership will have to demonstrate some populist base.
'Although many will grumble about 'Mr Popularity', they will have to give in and give him a promotion.'
But many have questioned the timing of the crackdown, launched shortly before a gathering of the party's top echelon - the Central Committee in September - saying it was Bo's calculated move to seek as much media exposure as possible amid intense political jockeying for power before the 2012 meeting.
Media-savvy Bo was clearly aware of such criticism. Asked if he had a personal agenda behind his crackdown, he was clearly annoyed and refused to give a direct response.
Intriguingly, although he insisted he was not the first local leader to crack down on gangs, Chongqing Mayor Huang Qifan has openly compared the anti-triad campaign led by Bo and those of his predecessors. 'As we all have seen, this latest campaign is clearly the most efficient one,' Huang said at a press conference last week.
Without directly criticising his predecessors, especially Wang, Bo described the crime problems in Chongqing when he arrived as appalling. But his high-handed work style and his enthusiasm in promoting revolutionary culture that harkens to Maoist days has earned him as much praise as criticism.
Dai Qing , a writer, questioned Bo's anti-triad drive, which, according to critics, had proceeded at the expense of the rule of law.
'He may have snared many corrupt officials, but he has failed to eradicate the political basis for deep-rooted corruption,' she said.
Trained as a journalist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in the early 1980s, Bo became mayor of the booming northeastern port city of Dalian in the 1990s and governor of Liaoning in 2001.
'There is no doubt that Bo wants to use his political wisdom and charisma to climb up the leadership ladder, but we all know it's just his wishful thinking,' Dai said.