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'War of gods' captivates China

By Stan Grant, CNN
March 19, 2012 -- Updated 0849 GMT (1649 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Last week China's Communist leadership turned on one of its own, sacking Chongqing's Chief Bo Xilai
  • Was expected to become one of the exclusive nine members of the Politburo powerful standing committee
  • Veteran environmental campaigner Wu Deng Ming says this was a politburo power play
  • Wu says Bo made enemies within the party with his ambition and hunger for success

Beijing (CNN) -- Wu Deng Ming has seen it all.

As a boy he saw his country torn apart by war and revolution. He watched Mao Zedong's communists claim China for themselves.

Later, Wu swore his own allegiance by serving in the People's Liberation Army. But this is a man who's not one to toe the party line.

At 72 he has lost none of his vigor or the impish grin that has challenged authority for decades. Wu is seen as a hero of the environmental movement, one of the fathers of "green China."

He has been beaten, persecuted and threatened in his fight against big business and officialdom.

He bounds down the stairs to meet me at his office in the leafy surroundings of a university in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing, a firm handshake and talking rapidly. Wu is an old man who's seen too much to bother with caution. If he thinks it, he says it.

"This is a fight between gods, way beyond the reach of ordinary people," he says.

The rise and fall of China's Bo Xilai

The fight is a political drama that has gripped the entire country. The gods in question are the secretive inner circle of the Communist Party. What reads like a big-screen political thriller has thrust Chongqing, a city of more than 30 million people, into the spotlight.

Reaction mixed to Bo Xilai's ouster
Regional chief of Chongqing dismissed

Last week the party turned on one of its own, sacking Chongqing's Chief, Bo Xilai. But Bo is not some faceless official, he is what the Chinese call a "princeling."

His father was a revolutionary icon, a hero of the fabled long march when Communist rebels fled nationalist forces at the height of the civil war in the 1940s to regroup and storm to power.

China axes Bo Xilai from Chongqing after scandal

Bo has done more than live in his father's shadow, he has been a star in his own right. Tall, handsome and charismatic, he was widely expected to become one of the exclusive nine members of the Politburo's all-powerful standing committee later this year.

He made his mark in Chongqing, credited with transforming the city. Economic growth has galloped way ahead of the national average, while the city's infrastructure -- roads, office towers and shopping malls -- has rapidly modernized.

Bo married new-style Chinese capitalism with old-style Maoist rhetoric. He fashioned himself as "redder than red." Communist slogans sprung up around Chongqing and people were urged to sing cultural revolution-era songs.

The poor flocked to the city from rural villages looking for a better life. Many are glowing in their praise for Bo.

"I felt lost and my heart was heavy when I heard the news (of his sacking)," one man tells CNN.

Another lady, who works up to 15 hours a day shining shoes in the city center, says life is better for the elderly and the poor because of the ousted Bo.

"The city is greener and safer," she adds.

Bo also cracked down on crime. Under his orders, police busted gangs and locked up corrupt businessmen. While it won praise in some circles, critics said he used it as cover to persecute rivals.

The crackdown ultimately led to Bo's downfall. His former top cop and right-hand man, Wang Lijun, spectacularly sought refuge in an American consulate earlier this year, claiming his life was in danger. Since then there's been a lot rumor and innuendo but the truth has been lost in Chongqing's famous haze.

"No one can know," another local Chongqing man tells me. "We know nothing!"

To the man who's seen it all, this is a politburo power play. Wu has watched Bo up close for years and says he was too ambitious, too desperate for success.

"Bo made enemies," he says, adding that he took his "neo-maoist" campaign too far.

But Wu says this is about more than just Bo. This is about a system that has strayed too far from the people.

"Bo Xilai thinks like a feudalistic dictator and treat ordinary people like his subjects," he says. "I think only when Communist officials start treating people as their masters will people start wholeheartedly supporting the Party."

As the party's gods try to manage the transition to a new generation of leaders, they are looking all too human. The fallout from this saga of ambition, intrigue and betrayal is yet to be determined.

Wu has seen it all before. As he looks down from his office window he views the future through his own past and knows turmoil is never far away.

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