I f Premier Wen Jiabao is ''China's greatest actor'' as his critics allege, he saved his finest performance for last. After three hours of eloquent and emotional answers in his final press conference at the National People's Congress earlier this month, Wen uttered his public political masterstroke, re-opening debate on one of the most tumultuous events in the Communist Party's history and hammering the final nail in the coffin of his great rival, the now deposed Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai. And in striking down Bo, Wen got his revenge on a family that had opposed him and his mentor countless times in the past.
Responding to a gently phrased question about Chongqing, Wen foreshadowed Bo's political execution, a seismic leadership rupture announced the following day that continues to convulse China's political landscape to an extent not seen since 1989. But the addendum that followed might be even more significant. Indirectly, but unmistakably, Wen defined Bo as a man who wanted to repudiate China's decades-long effort to reform its economy, open to the world, and allow its citizens to experience modernity. He framed the struggle over Bo's legacy as a choice between urgent political reforms and ''such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution'', culminating a 30-year battle for two radically different versions of China, of which Bo Xilai and Wen Jiabao are the ideological heirs.
In Wen's world, bringing down Bo is the first step in a battle between China's Maoist past and a more democratic future as personified by his beloved mentor, 1980s Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang. His words blew open the façade of party unity that had held since the massacres of Tiananmen.
This October, the Communist Party will likely execute a once-in-a decade leadership transition in which President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen hand over to a new team led by Vice-President Xi Jinping. The majority of leaders will retire from the elite Politburo Standing Committee and the turnover will extend down through lower tiers of the party, government, and military. Wen hopes his words will influence who gets key posts, what ideological course they will set, and how history records his own career.
The two most popular members of the Politburo, Wen Jiabao and Bo Xilai, are also the most polarising within China's political elite. They have much in common, including a belief that the Communist Party consensus that has prevailed for three decades - ''opening and reform'' coupled with uncompromising political control - is crumbling under the weight of inequality, corruption, and mistrust. But the backgrounds, personalities, and political prescriptions of these two crusaders could not be more different.
Bo has deployed his prodigious charisma and political skills to attack the status quo in favour of a more powerful role for the state. He displayed an extraordinary capacity to mobilise political and financial resources during his four-and-a-half-year tenure as the head of the Yangtze River megalopolis of Chongqing. He transfixed the nation by smashing the city's mafia - together with uncooperative officials, lawyers and entrepreneurs - and rebuilding a state-centred city economy while shamelessly draping himself in the symbolism of Mao Zedong. He sent out a wave of revolutionary nostalgia that led to Mao quotes sent as text messages, government workers corralled to sing ''red songs'' and old patriotic programming overwhelming Chongqing TV.
From his leftist or ''statist'' perch, Bo has been challenging the ''opening and reform'' side of the political consensus that Deng Xiaoping secured three decades ago. Wen Jiabao, meanwhile, who plays the role of a learned, emphatic, and upright Confucian prime minister, has been challenging the other half of Deng consensus - absolute political control - from the liberal right. He has continuously articulated the need to limit government power through rule of law, justice and democratisation. To do this, he has drawn on the symbolic legacies of the purged reformist leaders he served in the 1980s, particularly Hu Yaobang, whose name he has recently helped to ''rehabilitate'' in official discourse. As every Communist Party leader knows, those who want a stake in the nation's future must first fight for control of its past.
Until last month Bo appeared to hold the cards, with his networks of princelings - the children of high cadres - and the gravitational force of his ''Chongqing Model'' pulling the nation toward him, while Wen's efforts produced few practical results. Bo earned his reputation as a rising star, until February 6 when his police chief and right-hand-man fled for his life into the US consulate in Chengdu, carrying with him sordid tales of criminal behaviour.
Wen Jiabao is the son of a lowly teacher who was stripped of his job during the Cultural Revolution and sent to tend the pigs. ''My family suffered constant attacks in the successive political campaigns,'' he told his Tianjin High School alumni last October. He rose to where he is by impressing a series of revolutionary veterans throughout his career, most notably the reformist 1980s Communist Party boss, Hu Yaobang.
Bo Xilai, in contrast, was born to rule. The son of revolutionary leader Bo Yibo, he studied at the nation's most prestigious middle school, Beijing No. 4. Bo had not yet turned 17 when a rift between the princeling children and those with ''bad class backgrounds'' erupted into class warfare.
Within months, however, Mao directed his Cultural Revolution toward his comrades-in-arms and unleashed a coterie of lesser-born Red Guards against the old ''royalist'' ones. Bo Xilai spent six years in a prison cell. His father was tortured. Red Guards abducted Bo's mother in Guangzhou and murdered her, or she committed suicide; if any records exist, they remain sealed.
Since former leader Deng Xiaoping's 1981 ''Resolution on History,'' the Cultural Revolution has officially been a ''catastrophe,'' but the party never explained what happened. By raising the spectre of the Cultural Revolution, Wen Jiabao has opened a crack in the vault of Communist Party history: that great black box that conceals the struggles, brutality, partial truths and outright fabrications upon which China has built its economic and social transformation. Beneath his carefully layered comments is a profound challenge to the uncompromising manner in which the Chinese Communist Party has always gone about its business.
In 1985, while most elders had been appointing each other or each other's children to important positions, Hu Yaobang recruited Wen Jiabao, the teacher's son, to run his Central Office - a position akin to cabinet secretary. The following year Hu Yaobang's elder son, Hu Deping, spoke in terms uncannily similar to Wen Jiabao's of two weeks ago. ''The Cultural Revolution was a tragedy,'' he said to the then propaganda minister, at a time when his father was at the height of his power. ''It will not appear again in the same form, but a cultural revolution once or even twice removed cannot be ruled out from once again recurring.''
Perhaps he had an inkling of what was coming. By 1986 the tensions between an increasingly market-oriented economy and more liberal social environment began to clash with the party elders' demand for absolute political control. Hu Yaobang tried to limit corruption among the elders' children, studiously ignored conservative ideological campaigns, and tolerated student protests. By the end of that year the elders had had enough.
Then, as during the Cultural Revolution, and as remains the case today, no rules governed Hu Yaobang's downfall; just a group of backstage power brokers who judged that he had gone too far. In January 1987, 21 years after his purging in the Cultural Revolution, the party elders subjected Hu to a torrid five-day criticism and humiliation session called a ''Democratic Party Life meeting''. The harshest of Hu's critics was the influential elder Bo Yibo, father of the now-purged Bo Xilai.
It is fortunate, perhaps, that Hu Yaobang could not see how his death in April 1989 triggered an outpouring of public grief at Tiananmen Square, as Chinese students held him up for his honesty and humanity in contrast to their perception of other leaders of the time. The protests morphed into a mass demonstration for liberalisation and democratisation, and against growing corruption among children of the political elite.
Shortly afterwards, Deng and the party elders ordered in the tanks, triggering another Cultural Revolution-style convulsion. Bo Xilai's father Bo Yibo moved to have Wen purged, according to a source whose father was a minister at the time, but other elders were impressed with how Wen shifted his loyalty from Zhao (who spent the rest of his life under house arrest) and supported martial law. Wen played by the rules of a ruthless system, his family leveraged his official status for their own business interests, and his career progression resumed.
Hu Yaobang was largely airbrushed from official history after his purge in 1987 But because he did not publicly challenge the party, he maintained his legacy and his supporters, including all of the current and likely future party chiefs and premiers: Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. All four regularly visit the Hu family home during Spring Festival. But only Wen Jiabao has publicly honoured his mentor's legacy.
Two years ago, on the 21st anniversary of Hu Yaobang's death, Wen penned an essay in the People's Daily that was remarkable in a nation whose leaders rarely give any public hint of their personal lives. ''What he taught me in those years is engraved on my heart,'' wrote Wen.
Hu taught his children to resist the idea, wired into the Communist Party psyche, that they had any particular hereditary right to high office. Nevertheless the eldest son, Hu Deping, rose to vice minister rank in the United Front Department. And last year he used his princeling heritage and networks to organise and say things that would have banished lesser-born men to jail. He organised a series of closed-door seminars for leading intellectuals and other princeling children of reformist leaders to try and build a consensus for reform.
The first and most low-key seminar, in July, ignited what became a raging public debate about Bo Xilai's ''Chongqing Model'' versus its possible antidote, the more liberal ''Guangdong Model.'' The second, in August, celebrated the 35th anniversary of the arrest of Mao's radical ''Gang of Four,'' which slammed the door shut on the Cultural Revolution just weeks after Mao's death in August 1976. The third, in September, explored the 30th anniversary of the 1981 Resolution on History, which had confirmed the Cultural Revolution as a catastrophe that must never occur again.
It was at the September gathering that Hu Deping set down the themes that Wen later referred to in his press conference, and published his comments on a website dedicated to the chronicling the life and times of his father : ''The bottom line is making sure to adopt the attitude of criticising and fundamentally denouncing the Cultural Revolution … In recent years, for whatever reason, there seems to be a 'revival' of something like advocating the Cultural Revolution. Some people cherish it; some do not believe in the Cultural Revolution but nevertheless exploit it and play it up. I think we must guard this bottom line!''
The subtext, only barely concealed, was that Bo Xilai must be stopped from dragging Communist Party back toward its most radical, lawless past. How, one could be forgiven for asking, could Bo grasp for power by praising a movement that killed his own mother?
Hu Deping homed in on the need to forge mechanisms to institutionalise the power games between party leaders. He told his princeling and intellectual friends in the seminar audience that the remnants of feudal aristocracy - old fashioned despotic power - might again emerge as the party had said it had during the Cultural Revolution. He foreshadowed the ructions that are now taking place: ''If we really want to carry out democratisation of inner-party political life, the cost is going to be enormous. Do we have the courage to accept that cost? If we do it now, there is a cost certainly. Do we dare to bear the cost? Is now the right time? I cannot say for sure. However, I think it might create some 'chaos' in some localities, some temporary 'chaos', and some localised 'chaos'. We should be prepared.''
Hu Deping has been stepping forward, with some reluctance, to draw on his father's legacy to help shape China's future. He is a member of the standing committee of one of China's two representative-style bodies and mixes with senior leaders. He discussed the Cultural Revolution with both President Hu Jintao and his expected successor, Xi Jinping, not long before Wen Jiabao's press conference and Bo Xilai's demise. China's growing politically engaged population is watching the battle now under way within the Politburo to frame the downfall of Bo Xilai and set lessons that will shape China's future.
''So far we cannot identify whether Wen Jiabao is representing himself or representing a group,'' says a recently retired minister-level official, who had predicted Bo's sacking to me 10 days before it happened. ''Maybe it's 80 per cent himself and 20 per cent the group, we still have to watch.''
It remains far from clear whether the party's webs of patronage and knots of financial and bureaucratic interests can be reformed. But with China's leftist movement decapitated by the purge of Bo Xilai, and Bo's critics now talking about his reign of ''red terror'' after daily revelations of political and physical brutality under his command, Wen has begun to win over some of his many detractors.
''In the past I did not have a fully positive view of Wen Jiabao, because he said a lot of things but didn't deliver,'' says a leading media figure who has life-long connections to China's leadership circle. ''Now I realise just to be able to say it, that's important. To speak up, let the whole world know that he could not achieve anything because he was strangled by the system.''
Wen Jiabao sees Bo's downfall as a pivotal opportunity to pin his reformist colours high while the party is too divided to rein him in. He is reaching out to the Chinese public because the party is losing its monopoly on truth, and internal roads to reform have long been blocked. Ironically, he is doing so by leading the public purging of a victim who has no hope of transparent justice, because the party to which he has devoted his life has never known any other way.
John Garnaut is Fairfax's Beijing correspondent and is writing a book on the princelings who are shaping China's future. A version of this story appears at Foreign Policy Magazine online, foreignpolicy.com