Under fire over a scandal that threatens his career, senior Chinese leader Bo Xilai confidently hit back Friday, admitting lapses in judgment while defending the controversial anti-mafia crackdown that made him popular.
Bo's remarks to reporters were his most extensive in the three weeks since the police chief in the inland mega-city he runs, Chongqing, fled overnight to a U.S. Consulate and brought into the open their bruising power struggle that has dimmed Bo's political star. His defense was all the more remarkable because China's leaders rarely admit mistakes or explain their actions to the public, and almost never to the media.
"I feel like I put my trust in the wrong person as a manager," Bo said of his ex-police chief and former right-hand man, Wang Lijun, who is under investigation. "So this incident is something we need to seriously reflect on."
Bo fielded questions for more than an hour as the mayor of Chongqing and other city delegates to the national legislature looked on, playing down any ambitions to enter the uppermost echelon of Communist Party power. He rejected suggestions his family was corrupt and praised the work he has done in Chongqing to reduce a rich-poor gap that he said has crossed a dangerous threshold of inequality nationwide.
"If only a few people are rich, then we are capitalists. We've failed," said Bo, appearing relaxed and at his telegenic best in a navy suit and yellow tie and seated in an armchair in the Chongqing Hall in the Great Hall of the People.
Time and again Bo was asked about the scandal, which has mostly been kept out of state media but has circulated ferociously on Twitter-like services. Over the past week the scandal has sprawled: a retired politician committed suicide, allegations that Wang used torture against businessmen in the anti-gang crusade resurfaced, and a local entrepreneur was arrested after he promised more startling revelations.
Bo mostly parried the questions. He said that he was taken by surprise by Wang's sudden flight to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, though he declined to say why if Wang sought political asylum as rumored or what charges the ex-police chief faces now that he is in custody in Beijing. He denied he offered to resign as rumors had it.
Instead Bo defended the "smashing the black" gang crackdown that made him and Wang nationwide heroes as resolute leaders. "'Smashing the black' truly solved not a few problems for the people," Bo said. He later challenged reporters to "ask any citizens on the street" if they supported it.
The performance was vintage Bo, in keeping with this reputation as being media-savvy. He appeared only a notch more subdued than the commanding performances he has given at previous news conferences during the annual session of the National People's Congress. Once he tried to change the subject telling reporters that the Wang case was not the only thing going on in Chongqing.
News of Bo's comments spread swiftly over the Chinese Internet, with some appreciating his willingness to discuss sensitive issues.
Openness about the Wang matter would help "end rumors and clear up people's misgivings," wrote one person who signed with the pen-name "Xinganren" on the popular Weibo microblogging service.
Questions remain, however, over whether Bo's show of pluck means he has the backing of the rest of the Chinese leadership and if that will be enough to put his career back on track. The son of a Long March veteran and a former Commerce Minister, Bo is already in the 25-member Politburo and before the scandal was seen as a contender for the 9-member Standing Committee that runs China.
His fate has formed a distracting undercurrent to this year's 10-day and typically tightly scripted legislative meeting. When he failed to show up for a congress meeting Thursday, speculation rose; Bo said Friday he was waylaid by a cough. So many journalists flocked to his appearance that security guards had to hold dozens back at the staircase.
Bo declined to discuss his political future other than to say he had given little thought to his role at this fall's Communist Party congress, at which a younger generation of leaders will be installed.
Bo seems to have at least guaranteed himself a "soft landing," said Huang Jing of Singapore National University's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
"If Bo were to be removed from office and placed under investigation, this would cause enormous instability for the regime and the current leaders don't want that," Huang said. "It's in their interest to close off the case as soon as possible without causing too much damage."
Despite his popularity, Bo has been a polarizing figure among elites over the past year, not only for the excesses of the gang crackdown but for promoting mass sing-alongs of once popular communist anthems and other "red culture." Even before the latest scandal, rumors swirled about the Bo family's wealth and the shenanigans of his Oxford-educated son, Guagua, who has appeared shirtless at parties on photos posted on the Internet.
Bo denied that his son owned a Ferrari sports car as has been reported and said the younger Bo's Oxford education had been paid for by a public scholarship. Bo said his family has "no assets."
Associated Press writer Charles Hutzler contributed to this report.