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Since 2001, when China began allowing entrepreneurs into the Communist Party, the antics of the red aristocracy have fascinated and horrified the Chinese public--the multimillion-dollar houses abroad; the plush positions at state-owned enterprises; the expectation, as in a famous case involving the son of a top policeman, that they can just walk away from fatal traffic accidents. (Together, the richest 70 members of China's rubber-stamp parliament are worth $90 billion, according to the Shanghai-based wealth monitor Hurun Report.) Yet during the same period, a sustained economic boom notwithstanding, the Chinese populace has watched wages decline as a percentage of China's GDP. "This is the irony of China's transformation," says Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former China adviser to Bill Clinton. "The linkage of money and political power is intimate. If the Chinese Communist Party were called what it really is, it would be called the Chinese Bureaucratic Capitalist Party."
After a smooth turn as China's Commerce Secretary, Bo Xilai was dispatched in 2007 to Chongqing, a 30-million-strong mountain-ringed metropolis in southwestern China. There the Bo myth grew into legend, as he ordered a campaign of "singing red" (warbling Cultural Revolution--style ditties en masse to instill a sense of pride in Chongqing residents) and "smashing black" (cracking down on organized crime through the strong-arm tactics of police chief Wang). Even though he was technically only a governor of a faraway municipality, Bo garnered coverage from China's state-controlled press that outshined that of many of the nine-member Standing Committee that rules China. In 2010, China's presumptive heir, Xi Jinping, visited Bo's fief and praised its model of development, which mixed paeans to income equality with socialist nostalgia. Bo fashioned himself into a populist strongman in a country where leaders tend to deflect attention and hide from the public. "If you're in charge of the media, the courts, the police, all the way from the street sweepers to the skyscrapers," says James McGregor, a Beijing-based senior counselor for consulting firm APCO Worldwide who has met Bo, "it's probably hard not to think you're above everything."
But just as in Dalian, cracks appeared in the Bo facade. How could a government official whose monthly salary was only about $1,600 inveigh against corruption when his own family was living so luxuriously? What motivated a man whose early life was devastated by the Cultural Revolution to send mass text messages to local cell phones that repeated quotations from Mao's Little Red Book? Was the much vaunted crackdown on Chongqing crime--which resulted in thousands of arrests and the execution of Wang's predecessor as police chief--also a ploy to kneecap his enemies and flout the judicial process?