On the 90th anniversary of the founding of China's ruling Communist Party, the boss of the sweltering Yangtze River metropolis of Chongqing gathered 100,000 people in a soccer stadium and led them in a birthday singalong for the ages. They belted out, Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China, among other standards of decades past.
A 90-minute flight away, in the coastal manufacturing hub of Guangzhou, the anniversary was also celebrated July 1, but the master of ceremonies gave the day a somewhat more subdued tenor. “For a mature ruling political party, it's more important to study and review its history and strengthen a sense of anxiety than just to sing the praises of its brilliance,” Guangdong's Party chief, Wang Yang said in remarks that were published in the official People's Daily newspaper.
By Western standards, that was a very subtle poke at Bo Xilai, the singing boss of Chongqing. But in the murky world of Chinese leadership politics, Mr. Wang's jab was rare for its directness. Here was one top Party official taking public aim at another's leadership style, on a day that was supposed to be set aside for celebrating the Party's successes.
The remark drew back the curtain a hair's breadth on a behind-the-scenes rivalry that could shape the direction the world's rising superpower will take in the coming decade.
Mr. Bo and Mr. Wang are not only provincial Party bosses, but rivals for coveted spots on the nine-man Standing Committee of the Politburo – the top of China's power pyramid – during the once-in-a-decade leadership shuffle set to take place over the next year. And the regions they now govern offer starkly differing models for the direction China should head next.
The rivalry between the two men reflects a split within the Chinese Communist Party that, no matter how good the Party is at presenting a united front to the world, some see as a struggle for China's very soul.
On one side, there is Mr. Bo's Chongqing model, the favourite of a powerful faction of hard leftists who are prone to harkening back wistfully to the era of Chairman Mao, and want to see the country's pursuit of growth balanced with a renewed focus on social stability, including more equitable distribution of China's new-found wealth.
On the other is Mr. Wang's more open Guangdong model, the choice of a smaller clutch of free-market liberals, who argue that now is not the time to pause the country's economic and political reforms.
Since Mr. Bo took over as Party Secretary in Chongqing four years ago, he has won wide praise for smashing the region's crime syndicates. But he is even more notorious for his nostalgic embrace of “Red culture” – which includes not only revolutionary songs but bureaucrats being sent to the countryside to work alongside farmers, and Mao quotations being sent to millions of mobile phones by Mr. Bo himself.
Mr. Bo's campaigns have made him a hero of the country's “new left” but also unnerved some prominent intellectuals, who hear unsettling echoes of the Cultural Revolution, when tens of millions were violently purged in the name of ideological purity.
Meanwhile, Mr. Wang – who preceded Mr. Bo as Chongqing party boss before moving east to Guangdong – has recently emerged as the new hope of the country's liberals.
Guangdong, particularly the cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, famously gave birth to China's economic reforms in the 1980s and 1990s. Now the region is home to the country's freest media and has become an incubator for civil society. But a wave of strikes and protests in the province in recent years has unsettled other top party officials, who make no secret of their preference for stability over freedom.
“Bo's approach is a populist approach based on appealing to the masses with historical nostalgia,” said Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based analyst of Chinese politics. “Wang's efforts are no less populist, but they rest upon the notion that the Party's legitimacy will have to rest on more than simply economic growth.”
Some Chinese see the coming battle as critical to whether their country continues its lurching reform, or takes a dangerous step backward. “Chongqing is on the way to becoming North Korea. Guangdong is on the way to becoming Singapore,” said Yu Chen, an investigative journalist at the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily, widely considered one of the country's most independent newspapers.