By John Ruwitch and Michael Martina
SHANGHAI/BEIJING (Reuters) - One of China's most conspicuously reform-minded leaders has stepped back into the spotlight after the nation's biggest political convulsion in a generation, positioning himself to gain from the fall of populist politician Bo Xilai.
Wang Yang, leader of Guangdong province and well known for his deft handling of recent civil unrest there, is the first of three provincial-level party bosses who stand to benefit after a murder scandal snuffed out Bo's career last month.
Bo, once seen as a favorite of the party's conservatives, was a strong contender to join China's top decision-making body in a leadership transition due to be completed by March. His political demise is now an opportunity for rivals such as Wang.
Wang, 57, used his provincial party congress meeting this month to garner publicity ahead of the 18th national Party Congress where, late this year, a new and younger leadership group will be unveiled to replace President Hu Jintao's team.
Wang's performance at the Guangdong congress highlighted his image as the politician most likely to take up the reformist mantle of outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao, who had seen Bo as a threat to his reform legacy and moved swiftly to cut him down.
"Wang Yang's speech was sort of valedictory," said Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based expert on the Chinese leadership.
"People think that he will sort of be the next Wen Jiabao, the standard bearer of the liberals in the new Standing Committee."
Wang's reformist credentials were burnished last year when he ended a revolt in the village of Wukan with a soft touch and no bloodshed. The villagers ended a 10-day standoff and went on to hold local elections. He has also promoted various experiments in administrative reform over the years.
At his Guangdong congress, Wang gave a nod toward freer markets and a lighter hand of the state in ordinary peoples' lives, saying the party and government should not be seen as responsible for providing the people with happiness.
"We must get rid of the misconception that the people's happiness is a gift from the party and government... (and) respect the peoples' initiative so that the people boldly explore their own path to happiness," he said.
After the congress he took questions online, and acknowledged that criticism from netizens was good for governance.
Wang, however, has competition from other provincial party leaders who also see an opportunity for advancement to the pinnacle of power now that Bo has fallen away.
Shanghai party chief Yu Zhengsheng opened his municipal congress on Friday and Zhang Gaoli, the party boss of the northern port city of Tianjin, kicks off his meeting on Tuesday.
Wang, Yu and Zhang are all contenders for the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee - expected to be led by Hu's anointed successor, Xi Jinping - and their congress speeches offer clues to how warmly the new leadership will embrace economic, and even political reform.
Other contenders hail from central government or party bodies and do not have local party congresses to stage, and their political hues are more difficult to discern.
"These municipal, provincial party congresses, they are platforms for the local party bosses to showcase their policy orientations, their policy thinking. It is a platform for them to impress the center," said Wang Zhengxu, with the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute in Britain.
REFORM FROM BELOW
Premier Wen has been a steady proponent of economic reforms during his decade-long tenure. He has also made repeated calls for accompanying political advancements, although he has been unable to convert that rhetoric into reality.
Under President Hu, political reform has been glacial, lagging well behind the incremental pace of economic reform.
Whether Wen's likely successor as premier, Vice Premier Li Keqiang, will take up the reform mantle remains to be seen.
Li was immersed in the intellectual and political ferment of the post-Cultural Revolution period that ended in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. But his ascent in the party and government since then has been textbook gray.
China's leadership race is a secretive process of vetting, bargaining and coalition-building, in contrast to the raucous, publicity-soaked race for the White House that takes place in the United States over roughly the same time up until late 2012.
But China's emerging leaders are learning in their own way to court broader constituencies and potential backers, many of whom appear eager for faster reforms after a decade of President Hu's stability-above-all tenure.
The Chinese Communist Party remains a top-down body that does not answer to citizens or even its 80 million members. But the increasingly divided, assertive society formed by 30 years of market reforms has created chances for leaders to appeal to distinctive audiences in the hope of building influence, said Chen Ziming, an independent scholar who studies party politics.
"The central leadership doesn't have the plan or the will to carry out that kind of exploration, so again reform is coming up from below," said Chen, a former political prisoner who lives in Beijing.
"This shows a broader generational difference, too. They're showing that they'll handle things differently," Chen said of Guangdong's Wang and his cohorts.
TAOIST LEADERSHIP STYLE
Wang, Shanghai's Yu and Tianjin's Zhang are politically nothing like Bo, who courted the conservative old guard with his 'Red' campaigns and with calls for more egalitarian growth.
Yu, 67, like Bo, is a "princeling", the privileged offspring of former Chinese communist leaders or military top brass - but that is where any similarity ends.
Yu and Zhang, though, are likely to play things more conservatively in their party congresses than Wang.
For one, Wang's position in the top leadership is more secure than Yu and Zhang, who are older and likely to serve at most one term, analysts said. Also, breaking new ground at their congresses is unlikely - and can be risky if they hope to rise.
On Friday, Yu's work report to the Shanghai congress called for faster and better economic development, while sticking largely to accepted rhetoric on politics, at points mimicking the exact wording of previous speeches by top leaders.
"The development of socialist democratic politics is the unswerving goal of our party," he said. The Shanghai congress closes on Tuesday.
Lam, the Hong Kong-based analyst, described Yu as the least controversial of the party's princelings and is acceptable to the outgoing leadership. "He is not known for pushing any radical ideas," Lam said.
Even less drama was expected of Zhang, 65, a technocrat who helped change Tianjin from a backwater into an increasingly important financial centre.
"What he wants to do at this juncture is try not to make mistakes or offend anyone, to hide ambitions. He will try to ensure the (local) party congress goes through without interruptions or problems," said the University of Nottingham's Wang Zhengxu.
(Additional reporting by Melanie Lee in SHANGHAI and Chris Buckley in BEIJING; Editing by Brian Rhoads and Mark Bendeich)