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'Red Songs' fuels Chinese politician's ambitions

Three mornings a week, retired locomotive driver Xiao Hunhou ventures out to a hilly park in this teeming city to belt out Mao-era propaganda songs with his "New Light" choir.

The "Sing Red Songs" campaign is the brainchild of Bo Xilai, a Communist Party boss with a rare flamboyant touch. In a country known for staid politicians, he is a publicity hound with an administrative flair that has captured the national imagination — and could propel him into the top echelons of party leadership next year.

The exercise in musical nostalgia has won positive reviews nationwide and struck a chord with party conservatives and older Chinese, who remember — or imagine — a time when life was simpler and everyone pulled together.

"Singing red songs has really boosted Chongqing's national profile. It's a reminder of how life has gotten better," says the 61-year-old Xiao, as the elderly singers behind him launch into another tune beside a lake in Shaping Park.

Bo, whose office declined interview requests, may harken an era of more personality-oriented politics with a greater emphasis on policies favoring ordinary Chinese.

As party chief of Chongqing, a sprawling metropolis of 33 million people, he has won acclaim for cracking down on organized crime and empowering the working class. The veteran official is sure to be a media darling at the annual two-week meeting of the national legislature, which begins Saturday.

His new prominence marks a turnaround for a politician who missed out on a top spot in the leadership four years ago and ended up in Chongqing.

Now 61, he could easily have viewed the posting to central China as a prelude to retirement. Instead, he is widely believed to have kept his focus on the ultimate prize: appointment to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee when the current leadership steps down next year.

Obtaining a seat "is the ultimate objective of everything he has been doing in Chongqing," said Ding Xueliang, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology. "He's very calculating on this, very clever."

His promotion is far from certain, with some analysts saying he may be too flashy for his own good.

"My general sense is that Bo is seen by other high-ranking party leaders as something of a showboater playing to the foreign press and grandstanding to local audiences," said Alice Miller, an analyst of the Chinese leadership at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

A former commerce minister, Bo is a member of a group of politicians known as "princelings" — the children and relatives of the communist state's founders. His father, Bo Yibo, was a close ally of the father of China's economic reforms, Deng Xiaoping.

From his early days in provincial jobs in the northeast, Bo established himself as a forward-thinking administrator with a taste for showmanship. With a master's degree in international journalism, he shows a degree of ease with the media unusual for Chinese politicians and deftly uses outlets at his disposal to push his image and agenda.

Chongqing has proven fertile ground for Bo's ambitions. A newly built-up urban core surrounded by a vast rural area, the city is a testing ground for developing China's poorer inland regions and finding jobs for legions of migrants from the countryside.

Set amid hilly country on a bend in the Yangtze River, the city boasts auto plants, downtown skyscrapers and sprawling suburbs, along with urban China's problems of inflation, intense job competition and skyrocketing housing prices.

Soon after his appointment, Bo went after mob bosses and their police and government protectors, putting 500 up for prosecution, including at least 56 policemen and government officials. In the campaign's boldest step, the former director of the Chongqing Municipal Judicial Bureau was executed last year for bribery, rape, extortion and gang-related charges.

Heavy media coverage gave him a national profile for the first time. It also helped Bo stake a claim on a more substantive issue: making streets safer through community policing. Outdoor police stations now sit on virtually every corner, manned by officers who monitor conditions on laptop computers.

"It's now possible to open a business without being extorted or paying bribes, and women feel safe walking home at night," said Ding Hui, the manager of a tiny noodle shop in a noisy downtown district jammed with sidewalk hawkers.

Bo has also sought to place Chongqing on the cutting edge of urban policy by encouraging an initial 3 million rural residents on the city's outskirts to register as urban households, giving up their land rights in exchange for the better education, medical, housing and other benefits offered to urbanites.

Although not many have taken up the offer, the policy begins to address public concern over income disparities and high housing costs at a time when the Communist Party leadership is starting to turn away from pursuing economic growth at any cost.

It's the red songs campaign, though, that has put Bo back in the media spotlight.

He personally led the singalongs at first, forcing city officials to join. He also promoted communist-themed dramas on Chongqing TV and public readings of stories promoting traditional values and describing the party's history — sort of a "Chicken Soup for the Communist Soul."

City officials sell the campaign as a way to boost social cohesion and revive traditional values of group effort and love for the party at a time of rapid growth and social change.

"It's a way of being with friends and recalling our youth," says retired middle school administrator Chen Yuli, another member of Xiao's 60-strong choir. "We don't see anything political about them. They're just the songs that we grew up with."

Bo is not without his detractors, especially among those who came of age after China turned away from orthodox Marxism in the late 1970s.

A hotel doorman, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions, said the red songs campaign is a ploy to get public attention and has little to do with people like him.