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City divided by disgraced Communist leader's legacy

The murder of an English business man and corruption scandal, involving one of the China's most powerful men, has gripped the country. NBC's Ian Williams reports.

CHONGQING, China – Everywhere you go in Chongqing, you can see traces of the complicated legacy of Bo Xilai, the former Communist party chief who ran this municipality of 30 million people until scandal derailed him

At one time destined for a top post in China’s highest echelon of power, the standing committee of the politburo of the Communist Party, Bo aggressively poured money into this municipality in pursuit of his populist agenda.

To drive through the windy roads that snake around this hilly metropolis is to see a city in constant transformation. Towers of low-income housing complexes dot the skyline. These social housing projects were meant to address a major national issue: the lack of affordable housing, and provided homes that cost just a few hundred dollars a year to rent. And Bo had gingko trees, said to be one of his favorites, planted across the city.

But these city improvements came at a cost: His heavy investment in capital construction projects forced the city to borrow so much money to pay for it that Chongqing owes $20 billion to the China Development Bank, according to a news report on Wednesday. The tree planting saddled the city with a $1.5 billion bill just for 2010 alone.  

The improvements weren’t the only controversial aspect of Bo’s reign over this important gateway city to the western half of China, and since his demise his critics have stepped out of the shadows to talk about the darker side of life in what had become the former leader’s personal fiefdom.

Told a Bo joke, got a year in a labor camp

In Chongqing, NBC News spoke with Fang Hong, a 51-year-old former forestry officer who made news earlier this week when he filed an appeal with a local court seeking compensation for what he alleged was an unfair sentence he served at a labor camp.

According to Fang, he was imprisoned for posting a two-line joke about Bo on his microblog that quickly went viral. Soon after, Fang said he was dragged in by police for questioning and later brought before a police tribunal where he was sentenced for “fabricating facts and disturbing public order.” 

Fang served his sentence at a labor camp where he said he was forced to assemble thousands of Christmas ornaments for export for one year.

Released earlier this year, Fang was emboldened by the criticism that has shrouded Bo following his high-profile falling out with his vice-mayor and former police chief, Wang Lijun, who famously sought refuge at the American embassy in Chengdu. That move by Wang sparked an international political scandal that now includes a murder mystery. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, is a murder suspect in the death of British businessman Neil Heywood; Bo has been officially disowned by the ruling Communist Party and has disappeared from public view.

Ed Flanagan / NBC News

A crowd gathers around Fang Hong in Chongqing to hear his story on Tuesday.

Boisterous debate on Bo
Fang agreed to do an interview with NBC News on an outside promenade with commanding views of Chongqing’s skyline and the mighty Yangtze River below. Fang spoke confidently, eager to tell his story about the deprivations he faced while interned at the labor camp.

Between the presence of a foreign camera crew and his loud denouncements of Bo Xilai, Fang quickly drew a crowd of onlookers.

The first indication that things were going to get contentious with the crowd was when one short, middle-aged man standing next to the camera started muttering under his breath as he listened to Fang. 

Taking jagged drags from his cigarette and nervously flicking ash between puffs, the man’s voice rose incrementally to voice his protestations of Fang’s opinion about Bo. Those near to the man shushed him as they strained to hear what Fang was saying, but after one particular statement, the man clearly had enough.

“That’s bull---! Bo Xilai has done so much for Chongqing!” bellowed the man as he waved his cigarette at Fang.

The crowd erupted into a loud, boisterous debate on Bo, prompting NBC News correspondent Ian Williams to wrap up the interview so that Fang could quickly leave with his lawyers.

But before he left, Fang feistily told the man what he thought of his opinion, triggering a shouting match. One of Fang’s lawyers and some of the crowd had to separate the pair.

David Lom / NBC News

Angry pro-Bo Xilai supporter voices his opinion to the crowd in Chongqing.

‘Since Bo Xilai took power I feel more secure'
Not everyone had negative feelings about the disgraced former party chief.

 One older woman in the crowd said:, “Before, I was worried to wear earrings because I was worried I’d get robbed, but since Bo Xilai I feel more secure seeing more police on the streets.”

Finally, a line of security guards rolled up and broke up the crowd. The guards were not forceful and they exchanged a few knowing nods with the throng of people who were loudly voicing their support for Bo.

Bo’s fall has clearly given his critics the opportunity they’ve long desired to voice their criticisms of him.

However, despite the accusations that paint Bo’s Chongqing was something akin to a modern-day Tammany Hall, the populism and perhaps most importantly, the pride he instilled in this mega-city suggest his popular legacy may last far longer than Communist Party officials would like.

As one driver told us, “Yeah, Bo might have been corrupt, but at least he did something for us – which is more than those corrupt officials who do nothing at all.”   

NBC News’ Bo Gu contributed to this report.