Skip to main content

When it opened a decade ago, the Dalian Modern Museum offered an interactive vision of this port city's future where visitors could "drive" down fictional traffic-free streets and ride a flying carpet through pollution-free air. Everyone knew whose vision was on display – Dalian's long-time mayor, and the former rising star of Chinese politics, Bo Xilai.

"It's a hall filled with glory," the city's official tourism website still raves about the Dalian Modern.

Today, the once-grandiose museum is a hall of erased memories. Gone is the fantasy future, as well as exhibits showcasing the impressive changes that took place in the city over the 15 years – from 1989 to 2004 – the now-disgraced Mr. Bo was vice-mayor, mayor or provincial governor here. In their place are four floors of bare walls and largely empty display cases. "We're changing exhibits," was the answer a staff member gave when asked where the promised exhibits on Dalian's recent history, as well as an international fashion show Mr. Bo championed, had gone.

Disappointed visitors say the museum has sat largely empty for months, since shortly after the charismatic Mr. Bo was felled by China's biggest political scandal in decades. Already dramatically purged from the ruling Communist Party, he is expected to stand trial soon on charges of corruption, abuse of power and perhaps involvement in covering up a murder.

The emptying of the Dalian Modern Museum – which cost $200-million to build – is just one part of an apparent effort to erase from the record Mr. Bo's once-lauded contributions to China's development in both Dalian and Chongqing, the Yangtze River metropolis he later ran from 2007 until his downfall this year. Left is a cleaner narrative – that of a corrupt official (Mr. Bo has already been pronounced guilty by state media) with a legacy of only misdeeds.

The only items on display last week were some antique telephones and typewriters that have little to do with modernity, and a one-room tribute to Dalian's still-functioning nuclear power plant. The lights were off; empty escalators squeaked in protest at lack of maintenance.

Absent were the large paintings and terracotta statues of Mao Zedong and other Communist leaders that were centrepieces of the collection as recently as last year. What could be glimpsed was some of the Mao paraphernalia – perhaps removed because of its association with Mr. Bo, who embraced throwback symbols later in his rise – in a dusty back room of the museum, in a pile that included photographs featuring Mr. Bo at work as the city's mayor.

Aspects of the campaign to delete Mr. Bo's tenure recall other efforts by the ruling Communist Party to erase inconvenient chapters of its history, including the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators on Tiananmen Square, and the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo. Neither episode is fully dealt with by the country's state-controlled media.

Journalists and bloggers here say they've been told they can write about the allegations against Mr. Bo, but cannot remind anyone of his time as the popular mayor of this city of six million people.

Mr. Bo is broadly regarded as the best leader the city ever had, presiding over a time of rapid economic development – aided by Mr. Bo's renowned ability to lure foreign investors – that saw Dalian transformed into one of the cleanest and best-functioning cities in China.

"As a journalist, I had contact with Bo Xilai. But it's not very convenient for me to talk about him now," one prominent local writer explained, speaking only on the condition of anonymity. He said it's no longer acceptable to publicly praise the former mayor's ability to bring order and development to the city. "Bo's ideas will be gone very soon. They're already vanishing."

The same official amnesia has settled over Chongqing, the city Mr. Bo most recently ruled amid great controversy.

An exhibition hall in the city that paid high-tech tribute to Mr. Bo's successes in Chongqing reportedly closed its main attraction – a video hailing Mr. Bo's crackdown on the city's powerful Mafia gangs – after Mr. Bo was arrested in March. The propaganda billboards (calling for the construction of a "Safe Chongqing," and a "Livable Chongqing") that were another hallmark of Mr. Bo's rule also came down.

Chongqing's economy grew rapidly while Mr. Bo was the local Communist Party boss. And while rights activists complained about the lack of transparency and due process during the anti-Mafia drive – and worried about the consequences of Mr. Bo encouraging the return of Mao-era sayings and songs – he was unquestionably popular with ordinary citizens and the envy of his fellow Communist leaders.

The experiment with a return to a more intrusive government was known in China as the "Chongqing model," and was in recent years praised by almost every senior Communist figure, including the party's new general secretary, Xi Jinping, who called Mr. Bo's track record "worthy of praise."

There was talk the Chongqing model could be applied nationally if – as expected – Mr. Bo was elevated to the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the small group of leaders that effectively runs China.

But Zhang Dejiang, who replaced Mr. Bo as party boss in Chongqing after the scandal– and who did ascend last month to the seven-man Standing Committee – recently declared "there is no such thing as the Chongqing model."

Mr. Bo disappeared into apparent custody in March after a dramatic episode that saw his long-time chief of police take refuge in a U.S. consulate, telling tales of murder and corruption in Chongqing. Mr. Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, now faces a suspended death sentence after pleading guilty to the murder of a British businessman in Chongqing last November, while the police chief, Wang Lijun, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison after a one-day trial on charges of abuse of power, bribe-taking and defection.

Mr. Bo's own trial is expected next. In October, he was placed under formal investigation for abuse of power and taking "huge" bribes, the official Xinhua news wire reported, adding Mr. Bo also bore "major responsibility" in the murder of the Briton, Neil Heywood.

The trial will mark the end of the official story, and it's clear no other versions will be tolerated. One Dalian blogger, who has more than a million followers and says he receives regular suggestions from the government about what topics to avoid, said he's allowed to write about almost anything right now, as long as it's not related to Mr. Bo.

"Citizens of Dalian and citizens of Chongqing both have quite deep feelings for Bo Xilai," he said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity. "But because of obvious pressure, people cannot express this."