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BEIJING (Reuters) - The Communist Party chief of the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing acknowledged on Monday that a scandal that toppled his predecessor had done serious harm to the ruling party's image, just months before a key congress and change of leadership.
Zhang Dejiang, who replaced Bo Xilai in March following the scandal which also entangled his wife and a former police chief, said too much attention had been given to the uproar.
The telegenic Bo had been a contender for a top leadership post, but his prospects suffered a blow after Vice Mayor Wang Lijun, previously his longtime police chief, went to ground in the U.S. consulate in nearby Chengdu until he was coaxed out and placed under investigation.
Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, has been accused of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood. Neither she nor Bo has appeared in public since March, and they have not had a chance to publicly answer the allegations about Heywood, a long-time family friend.
Zhang, speaking at the city's Communist Party congress, one of numerous such meetings to proceed the crucial national-level congress later in the year, praised Chongqing's development, but said it was being overshadowed by the clouds swirling around Bo.
"Chongqing's development and work of the city's party committee have some problems and deficiencies," Zhang said, according to a transcript of his speech carried on a Chongqing government news website (www.cqnews.net).
"Especially the Wang Lijun incident, death of Neil Heywood and serious discipline problems of comrade Bo Xilai, which have gravely damaged the party and nation's image, and seriously affected Chongqing's reforms and development," he added.
"Everyone believes that ... we must strictly separate Chongqing's achievements over the last five years and hard work of the majority of officials and people from the Wang Lijun incident, death of Neil Heywood and serious discipline problems of comrade Bo Xilai."
Chinese state media has largely stayed away from discussing these cases in the past few weeks, as the government tries to put on a unified and harmonious face ahead of the main party congress.
Zhang told officials that nobody was above the law, and promised to step up oversight over the police and prevent forced confessions or other abuses, complaints lodged during Bo's rule and his zealous crackdown on organised crime.
"Resolutely uphold the principle that all are equal before the law, and never let any person or group put themselves above the law. Leading officials must especially set an example in following the law," he said.
In April, Bo was suspended from the elite Central Committee and its Politburo, effectively ending his career. Until the scandal, Bo had widely been seen as pressing for a top leadership post.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie