CHONGQING, China — Like many others in China, the family of the teenage Bo Xilai was torn apart in the Cultural Revolution. The bloody decade-long movement, launched in 1966 by the paranoia and plotting of Mao Zedong against "class enemies," left millions of people beaten, crippled or killed.
Bo's father, who'd been China's vice premier under Mao, suffered public humiliation, physical abuse and imprisonment. Bo's mother didn't make it. She was said to have committed suicide or been beaten to death. Bo himself spent part of his early 20s, from 1968 to 1972, in a prison camp.
Decades later, Bo stands accused of using techniques similar to those that brought ruin to his family to propel his own campaign for power in China's murky world of politics.
Two weeks ago, he was removed from his position as Chinese Communist Party secretary in the sprawling acity of Chongqing. Although he for now retains a seat on the nation's 25-seat politburo, his once-expected elevation to the party's top leadership later this year appears unlikely.
The details of Bo's fall from grace remain largely unknown. Explanations range from official dismay that his former police chief sought asylum at an American consulate to allegations, thus far unsubstantiated, that Bo's wife somehow was involved in the death of a British businessman last fall in Chongqing.
Whatever the causes, the story of Bo's rise and fall signals an ongoing dilemma for China's central government — the lack of systemic political reform — that could present serious challenges for the world's second-largest economy, on which global growth increasingly depends.
On one hand, the nation's rulers insist that the party remain the unquestionably dominant force over the government and anything that resembles political speech, an approach that largely has shielded officials from accountability amid allegations of corruption and abuse of power.
The accompanying lack of political flexibility, however, makes it difficult to address public grievances in a large-scale manner, leaving issues such as corruption or abuse to fester.
The result has been a central leadership that speaks frequently about change of one stripe or the other but that, so far, continues to rely on authoritarian tactics to enforce its will. In that top-down structure, local officials are left largely beyond the law.
Faced with overseeing an unwieldy city on the dirty banks of the Yangtze River, Bo welcomed modern factories from firms such as Hewlett-Packard after he was named the Communist Party secretary for Chongqing in 2007. When it came to social management, though, he turned to lessons of another period.
He instituted "sing red" mass gatherings that included the celebration of Mao-era songs and culture. He imposed a campaign known as "strike black," a ruthless crackdown on the "black society" of people vilified as being connected to gangs or corruption. At the same time, he dispatched Communist Party members to live with families in the countryside, another mirror of Maoist times.
Combined with an emphasis on welfare and housing programs, the 62-year-old Bo had, at least in theme, created an atmosphere in Chongqing that many observers said recalled the Cultural Revolution.
"If political reform had progressed normally, then the story of Bo Xilai would not have occurred," said He Shu, a local historian of the Cultural Revolution. "If there were democratic, lawful procedures, then things like this would not happen."
There's little question that any leader would have faced trouble trying to sort out Chongqing. The greater municipality was carved out of neighboring Sichuan province in 1997, creating a tract of land roughly the size of South Carolina, with 30 million people, centered on a city with a reputation for corruption and organized crime.
Combining the rural and urban populations would create one of the biggest cities in the world, and a main anchor for the nation's aims to develop its interior economy. It also would mean grappling with some of China's thorniest dilemmas, such as rural land rights, a deep income gap and a host of other inequalities.
In Chongqing, there were few if any safeguards to make sure the Communist Party chief addressed such issues reasonably. Instead, Bo is alleged to have used police in the "strike black" effort to torture and imprison some of those whose assets he wanted seized.
"During the strike black campaign he did confiscate some private-sector assets," said Pu Yongjian, a prominent economist at Chongqing University. "But what was his motivation? I don't know."
Local TV and newspaper reporters were, of course, expected to follow the line Bo set. The same seemed to apply to prosecutors and judges. One lawyer from a well-connected Beijing firm who tried to prepare a defense for an alleged gangster was himself tried on charges of advising his client to give false testimony. The case was interpreted as a warning sign to other attorneys who were thinking about getting in Bo's path.
"They showed a total disregard for the fundamentals of the law," said Li Zhuang, the lawyer, who was sentenced to prison in January of 2010 and released about a year and a half later. "What they aimed to do was hide all of the wrongdoings, the unlawful things they'd done in the process of strike black."
Asked about parallels some have drawn between the Cultural Revolution and Bo's tactics, Li said in a phone interview this week that it was "a very suitable comparison."
Those experiences hint at entrenched tensions between the Communist Party's past and future.
A few years after Mao's death in 1976, the nation embarked on an economic expansion that brought unprecedented growth. But political reform on a similar scale did not follow.
More than 30 years later, the formerly impoverished nation of peasants is a world leader. Nonetheless, its core governing structure still resembles that of Maoist China, though ruled by consensus of a small group and not just the whims of a dictator. A secretive group of nine men on a politburo standing committee have absolute power, with their authority branching through party potentates big and small. Open examination of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution remains taboo.
Liberal intellectuals in Chongqing point to the nation's lack of a full public reckoning with the darker aspects of Mao's legacy as a fundamental problem.
"There's been no reflection on history and no redress of past wrongs, so people could sing and praise the Communist Party's glory and mention very little about its mistakes," said Wang Kang, a writer and political commentator.
Whether motivated by ideology or calculated political opportunism — for all the talk about Maoist doctrine, Chongqing is home to a Louis Vuitton boutique and a Porsche dealership — Bo's efforts for years met with approval from many of China's senior leaders.
His ascent to the politburo standing committee seemed set as a member of China's version of royalty: His father was rehabilitated as a party elder in the post-Mao era and is referred to as one of the "immortals" who outlasted purges and factional rifts.
During a trip to the city, presumptive president and party leader Xi Jinping, also a "princeling" son of a prominent Communist Party hero, deemed Bo's efforts "worthy of praise."
Missing from the ranks of those who applauded the "Chongqing model" were current President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Both men spring from more humble backgrounds and unlike the dapper, brash Bo they favor drab suits and monotonous speeches.
On the day before Bo's dismissal, Wen told a news conference March 14 in Beijing that, "Without a successful political reform ... such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again."
In remarks to reporters a week earlier, Bo had quoted Mao on the subject of a socialist society and the need to share wealth evenly. "If only a few people are rich," Bo said, "then we are capitalists. We've failed."
The two men appeared to be arguing in coded language about Mao and the nation's course. Typical of Beijing's opaque politics, speculation about their intentions sounded not unlike ancient Roman analysis of gods rumbling about the thunderclouds.
Some in Chongqing maintain that Bo's reliance on "red songs" wasn't about the Cultural Revolution at all, but rather a desire to foster collective social values in the wake of the nation's searing economic advance.
"I call it 'singing sacred,' " said one professor in Chongqing, who first asked that his school not be named and later requested that his name be dropped as well, because of the "sensitive" period after Bo's ouster.
He added: "Do American people and British people have religions? Chongqing's 'sing red' is meant to give people a kind of noble faith."
Pu, the economist, agreed that much of the culture push was designed to raise people's spirits, not revolutionary fervor.
"But what Bo Xilai did with promoting red songs might have been too much," he said, sipping soda water and lemon in an upscale coffeehouse.
Pu asked that his quotes be used carefully. "If you only write my good words about Bo I could be in danger, and if you report only my bad words I could also be in danger," he said. "In China right now, the two sides of the Bo issue have not been settled."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Tom Lasseter on Twitter.
McClatchy Newspapers 2012