BEIJING — Bo Xilai, a charismatic politician who until recently was thought to be on his way to becoming one of the most powerful men in China, offered his first comments Friday on a wave of scandal that has shaken his ambitions.
Making an appearance before a select group of reporters at the National People's Congress, Bo, party secretary of the megacity of Chongqing, said he was surprised by the developments surrounding his once close aide, Wang Lijun. Wang last month spent a still unexplained night at an American consulate last month, and some reports have said Wang was seeking asylum but that U.S. diplomats refused his request.
Bo's appointment to the nation's politburo standing committee, the center of its authoritarian Chinese Communist Party, may have been unraveled by the events. On Friday, Bo said that Wang, a former Chongqing police chief who gained fame for leading a crackdown on organized crime and corruption, is now under official investigation, according to a pool report of the event by Bloomberg News and a transcription provided by another reporter in attendance.
Bo declined to provide details of the investigation, but he faulted himself for poor personnel management in Wang's case. Wang was also Chongqing's vice mayor.
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Highlighting the unusual circumstance in which Bo finds himself, the Chongqing delegation at China's annual National People's Congress did not open its panel to the full reporting corps, as is standard practice, instead admitting only a small group. Chongqing representatives at first explained that decision to a throng of dozens of reporters by blaming the smallness of their meeting space at the Great Hall of the People, and later by denying that the event was a standard meeting.
In his comments, Bo, 62, sought to rebut a series of allegations that have given his reputation a serious tumble. He said that he was not a target of a government investigation. Bo clarified that he hadn't offered to resign. He said he missed the previous day's session of the People's Congress — his absence was a much-discussed development on Thursday — because he had a cough and didn't feel well. He also denied that his son drives a red Ferrari, as has been previously reported.
The government's examination of Wang, whose anti-crime campaign was closely intertwined with Bo's rise, could be particularly significant because, in the past, inquiries into Chinese officials' underlings have been used to topple the officials themselves.
It's not been made public exactly why Wang showed up at the American consulate in Chengdu, the closest U.S. diplomatic outpost to Chongqing, in early February, or for what charges he is now being investigated. Chongqing officials first announced that Wang was in poor health and receiving "vacation-style treatment."
Rumors have circulated that Wang faced a corruption inquiry and that, with Bo not getting him out of the jam, he'd sought to gain asylum from the Americans in part by exchanging damaging information about officials, perhaps including Bo.
Reports surfaced this week that men identified as police had threatened, and possibly detained, a Chongqing businessman who allegedly had audio recordings of Wang telling him not to publicize accusations of corruption against another businessman.
Before the current imbroglio, Bo had promoted a populist brand of politics thought to be the subject of debate in Beijing's ruling circles. His very public "strike back" approach to corruption and crime in Chongqing tapped into a deep well of public resentment toward widespread graft by officials and those linked to them. He also encouraged a series of events centered on "Red Culture" — public displays that exalted in Mao Zedong-era songs and culture.
People began to speak about a "Chongqing model" in comparison to the "Guangdong model," named for a coastal province in which the leadership is perceived to be more liberal.
At Friday's meeting, Bo pointed to high levels of inequality in China — the sort of grassroots issue that plays to the Chongqing model.
If only a small group of Chinese become rich, Bo said, the nation will "have failed."
That, he warned, would take things down "a wrong road."
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