Bo Xilai trial: In streets of Dalian, echoes of a fallen star's rise to power

As China gets set for the trial of the disgraced high-flying politician, it may hinge on economic crimes he is alleged to have committed in the city of Dalian, where he was mayor.

Ng Han Guan/AP
A Chinese woman protests outside the Jinan Intermediate People's Court in Jinan, eastern China's Shandong province Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. Former Chinese politician Bo Xilai will stand trial at the court on Thursday on charges of corruption and abuse of power.
Andy Wong/AP/File
Bo Xilai, former Chongqing party secretary wipes his glasses during a plenary session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 11, 2012.

As disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai awaits the start of his corruption trial Thursday, the northeastern port city where he first became powerful retains a defiant pride in its fallen former star mayor – a man driven to rise to the top reaches of government.  

Some physical traces from Mr. Bo’s tenure in Dalian – a post he held from 1993-2000 before moving to Beijing, then Chongqing – have been erased or tempered amid his spectacular fall from grace. But enough remain to give a sense of a man who rattled the highest echelons of the Communist Party, and earned a reputation as a fiercely loyal political friend – or a ruthless foe.

Bo’s trial in Jinan this week, which may hinge on economic crimes in Dalian, could mark the close of one of modern China’s most bizarre political dramas.

Bo's demise began more than a year ago when his wife, Gu Kailai, was linked to the murder of British business associate Neil Heywood. Ms. Gu later was convicted of murdering Heywood.

In Dalian, officials removed museum exhibits linked to Bo, who is now in his 60s, and scrubbed his name from view as the former mayor was purged from his posts and party, then finally indicted last month on charges of corruption, embezzling, and abuse of power.

For all his personal popularity, Bo's lasting impact on Dalian included what some considered reckless spending to cement his reputation for public works and development.

"His rule in Dalian shared something in common with his Chongqing model such as launching many construction projects and improving people’s livelihoods," says Zhang Ming, a politics professor at Renmin University. "Basically speaking, he acted like a showman. Dalian served as a platform for him to jump even higher but he didn’t consider if the government can repay the debt."

Bo’s personal stamp on Dalian remains, however, in the scores of cottonwood trees he ordered planted to green up the city, along with the peculiar fleet of female traffic police on horseback. And at Dalian’s Xinghai Square, amid a vast expanse of seaside concrete built during Bo’s tenure, a towering white marble ceremonial column known as a huabiao, a monument typically reserved for key palaces and tombs, is testimony to his political ambitions. 

“He wanted to be the president. That is certain,” says a longtime Dalian businessman who did not want to speak on the record for fear of reprisals.

Zhang Lifan, an authority on modern Chinese political history, says Bo cemented his interest in politics in Dalian. Before that, he is rumored to have considered a career as a foreign correspondent. 

“He succeeded in being a showman when he was ruling in Dalian,” says Mr. Zhang. “First, he set up a team of policewomen on horseback who added beautiful scenery to the city. Second, he launched many projects to beautify the city.”

Bo – the son of party elite – also did his best to curry favor with Beijing. His brash style and policies made him many allies in Dalian, but also fearful enemies.

“Bo’s case shows problems of China Communist Party’s political institution, which is not selecting strongmen but ordinary ones,” says Zhang. “Bo is a political strongman with capability, but he is not safe, and caused concern to other officials. His brutality to rivals made other officials fear him.”

The fear in Dalian today is not of Bo, but of discussing too him too much, which many say could lead to trouble. Still, many hold strong opinions that Bo did nothing that wasn’t common among Chinese government officials, and that in many ways he was less corrupt.

“The amount of corruption Bo Xilai is accused of is very small compared to the rest of the government. Corruption is a bigger problem with China’s government,” says Wang Haixing, a tourist from central China while sightseeing in Dalian.

Others shared that outlook, lowering their voices when speaking of Bo. Few would agree to give their names, but several said his policies, like building affordable housing, and personal style, made him more appealing than most Chinese political figures. Though he’s been gone from sight for more than a year, his legacy remains strong here.

Beyond the popular, Bo’s political history is inexorably linked to the Dalian that materialized during his tenure, when he targeted foreign investment to grow the local economy. Dalian now could be a key component of the case against Bo, even though Bo’s political career collapsed on the other side of the country in Chongqing.

The indictment against Bo named billionaire Xu Ming, head of the Dalian Shide Group, as a main source of Bo’s bribes. Mr. Xu has been missing for more than a year. His company denied rumors of bankruptcy, but the Dalian headquarters of Shide are empty, and desks and workstations mostly bare.

On the seaside at Xinghai Square, Bo’s footprints remain encased in concrete, although they are no longer plated in gold and raised above the dozens of others treading a path to the sea. A tour guide says the gold was removed and Bo’s footprints leveled when the former mayor was purged. Tour guides used to point out the footprints and talk about Bo’s achievements, but the day before his trial opened, onlookers had to guess and ask which barefoot impressions were his.

“His must be the biggest ones,” says one woman. “He’s a leader.”

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