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Bo Xilai: rise and fall of a political star in China

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

With a suave demeanour, well-cut suits and an easy smile, Bo Xilai was in his heyday a stark contrast to the usual ranks of stiff, buttoned-up Chinese politicians.

But his open ambition and lobbying for promotion, coupled with his "princeling" status as the son of a hero of China's revolution, irritated some of his colleagues in the upper echelons of the ruling Communist Party.

His revival of "red" culture, sending officials to work in the countryside and pushing workers to sing revolutionary songs, also raised eyebrows.

The ousted political star went on trial for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power on Thursday in the country's highest-profile prosecution for decades.

Born in 1949 -- the year the Party took power -- Bo championed the leftist bent despite his family's tragedy during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, a decade of deadly chaos launched by then-leader Mao Zedong in which youths tormented their elders and officials were purged.

His father, revolutionary general Bo Yibo, was jailed and tortured and his mother was beaten to death, while Bo Xilai himself spent time in a labour camp.

But after Mao died and reformist leader Deng Xiaoping took over, Bo Yibo was rehabilitated and became one of the most powerful men in China, a party "immortal" who retained influence over state affairs through the 1990s.

The father's outsized stature bestowed on the son an impeccable pedigree that long protected him -- and may have also facilitated his rise through the ranks.

Bo studied history at Peking University and took a master's degree in journalism from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences -- an educational background that stands out in the crowd of engineers and scientists who make up China's political elite.

For nearly two decades from 1985 he was based in China's northeastern rustbelt, first as mayor of Dalian, a decaying port city that he is credited with transforming into a modern investment hub.

He brought glamour and attention to the city with flashy signature projects including a mounted female police squad, international fashion show and successful football team.

There he left his first wife, with whom he had one son, for Gu Kailai -- another privileged child of a renowned general and an accomplished lawyer who also studied at Peking University.

Bo was promoted to governor of Liaoning province, and in 2004 entered the Beijing limelight as China's commerce minister, dazzling foreign counterparts with his modern, can-do attitude.

During that time, Bo hosted many foreign visitors including EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, with whom he appeared to be on genuinely friendly terms.

Outside observers who said his move to Chongqing in the southwest would push him out of the limelight found themselves proved wrong.

Yet those who had praised Bo as relatively liberal grew disillusioned, particularly with his ruthless corruption crackdown, which saw scores of officials detained, some executed, and has since been criticised as flouting the law.

An early critic, journalist Jiang Weiping, was jailed for five years in 2000 and later moved to Canada after accusing Bo and Gu of corruption as early as the 1990s in Dalian.

Jiang claimed Gu earned money by setting up a company to facilitate foreign investment and a research institute that collected donations.

He accused Bo of winning promotions by lavishing key officials with benefits such as land or tax incentives.

Local media have said Bo's corruption charges will centre on sums illegally obtained during his years in Dalian.

The couple's son, Bo Guagua, has enjoyed a top-notch education -- including Oxford, Harvard and soon Columbia law school in New York -- raising questions about how his family afforded the pricey tuition.

But their gilded existence began to come apart when British businessman Neil Heywood was killed in a Chongqing hotel room in 2011 -- Gu was convicted of his murder -- and now Bo faces the prospect of a long prison term himself.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130822/bo-xilai-rise-and-fall-political-star-china