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Popular crime fighter shakes up China's establishment

Bo Xilai, governor of Chongqing municipality, is surrounded by microphones and cameras at the National People’s Congress in Beijing.

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'Your eyes are like a pair of swords flickering cold light. You stand firm in the face of the evil," the high-pitched male voice warbles as the camera pans over the fog-shrouded Yangtze River city of Chongqing. But this saccharine pop song is an ode to a man, not a place: "Bo Xilai, Bo Xilai, China need tens of hundreds of heroes like you."

Bo Xilai, the charismatic and media-savvy governor of the sprawling southwestern city of Chongqing, is in an awkward spot. Celebrated nationwide for smashing the organized crime networks that had given his city the reputation of a 1930s Chicago-on-the-Yangtze River, he's arguably the most popular politician in a country that doesn't like political stars.

Mr. Bo's coming-out party was this week when he gave a press conference on the sidelines of the otherwise sleep-inducing annual session of China's parliament, the National People's Congress. Some 200 foreign and domestic reporters packed the room to hear Mr. Bo speak about the crackdown in Chongqing that has seen more than 3,300 people arrested and some 63 separate organized-crime rings raided by law-enforcement officials.

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"Cracking down on triads is aimed at building a safe Chongqing and pushing ahead with the rule of law," he said. "What we have done is seek justice for those killed in over 500 murder cases in the past decade."

But the man-of-the-moment was far less eloquent when a Taiwanese reporter hit him with the question that was on the minds of many observing his confident strut through the National People's Congress. "Are you paving your way to the Politburo Standing Committee with the anti-triad crackdown?" the reporter asked. "Are you not worried about stealing the show and outshining your bosses?"

The question was left to hang in the air for a moment before an apparently irritated Mr. Bo responded: "We are here to discuss the government work report delivered by Premier Wen Jiabao. Let's not change the topic. I try to treat the media nicely, and I hope the media can return the favour."

It was actually a fair question; as many as seven of the nine Politburo members are up for retirement in 2012 and speculation is rampant that Mr. Bo will try to convert his new popularity into a top job in Beijing. But the 60-year-old is aware that his rising popularity - as well as the anti-gang campaign that continues to expose connections between crime bosses and senior officials - is a double-edged sword, something that could put him at odds with the rest of the political elite. Politburo member He Guoqiang is a former Chongqing party boss, as is Wang Yang, currently the governor of Guangdong province who is seen as a potential rival to Mr. Bo for a top job in 2012. Both now could face questions about why they didn't take tougher action against Chongqing's triads.

Mr. Bo, who has a degree in journalism, casts himself as much as a throwback as a reformer. He leads televised party meetings in full-throated renditions of revolutionary songs and peppers mobile phone users in Chongqing with unsolicited text messages containing his favourite sayings from Chairman Mao. "What really counts in the world is conscientiousness," was one choice passage that was received on millions of phones.

The son of revolutionary hero Bo Yibo, known one of the "Eight Immortals" of the Communist Party, Mr. Bo was imprisoned in a labour camp with his family for five years after they were purged by Mao in the Cultural Revolution. Later, his father returned to power alongside Deng Xiaoping and was among those who argued in favour of the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

A graduate of the international journalism program at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Mr. Bo has spent his adult life working in government and party posts. He was commerce minister in the national government before his assignment to Chongqing; his move south in 2007 was seen as something of a demotion after he was passed over for a top post while two others of his generation, Vice-President Xi Jinping and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, were tabbed as the party's next leaders.

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Having been rebuffed inside the party structure, Mr. Bo now seems to be seeking power through the most untested route in Chinese politics - by winning over the media and public.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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