In a moment of high political drama, China has removed flamboyant politician Bo Xilai from his post as party secretary of the major southern city of Chongqing. The sacking comes as Beijing approaches a once-in-a-decade power transition this fall, offering a glimpse of the Machiavellian political struggle behind the scenes.
After weeks of fevered speculation, the end — when it came — was swift and succinct. A single sentence from the official Xinhua news agency Thursday ended the career of Bo, who once had seemed headed straight for China’s top leadership body, the Politburo Standing Committee.
But his days were numbered after a scandal involving his right-hand man and former police chief, Wang Lijun, who sought refuge last month in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. Wang, now under investigation and in the custody of Chinese authorities, was also removed from his formal position as Chongqing’s deputy mayor Thursday.
“What’s happening to Bo Xilai is fairly obviously a classic case of political intrigue and backstabbing,” says Willy Wo-lap Lam, a veteran China-watcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “It’s quite possible that the Bo Xilai affair is a recurrence of the political mechanism of one faction using the anti-corruption card against the other.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao made a thinly-veiled attack on Bo Xilai during his annual news conference, saying the Chongqing authorities “must seriously reflect on and draw lessons from the Wang Lijun incident.”
The prime minister also implicitly criticized Bo’s vision for China. Known as the Chongqing model, it involves mass mobilization and a revival of Maoist values. Key elements include singing “red,” or Communist, songs; closing the wealth gap; and attacking corruption and organized crime. A crackdown led to 2,000 arrests and 13 executions, but spurred criticism of a disregard for due process or the rule of law.
Yang Fan, who wrote a book on the Chongqing model, says Bo’s mistakes include being too Maoist, or “leftist” in current Chinese political parlance.
“He has no future. He committed very serious leftist mistakes. Even the leftists in Beijing will all be criticized, and will need to reflect,” Yang says. “His mistakes caused insecurity to society, especially senior politicians and rich people in coastal areas. Many moved their money overseas, and even people in Beijing, like me, felt insecure.”
At a news conference six days ago, Bo was clearly angry as he addressed corruption rumors swirling around his family, in particular his son, Bo Guagua, who studied at Oxford University and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“A few people are smearing Chongqing, smearing myself, smearing my family and even saying my son, who studied abroad and drove a red Ferrari. It’s a pack of lies. I feel really furious. It’s a pack of lies.”
Bo’s undisguised ambition and his headline-grabbing, polarizing style may have also been his downfall, says Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“In Beijing, he has many enemies at the top echelons of the party. It’s quite possible that they might charge him with either corruption or some sort of economic crimes,” Lam says. “It is assumed in political circles in Beijing that when Bo Xilai served for more than 10 years in Liaoning province, he had been the victim of innuendo about corruption and collusion with Chinese mafia elements.”
But how to deal with Bo presents a dilemma. Cheng Li from the Brookings Institution believes Bo’s popularity in Chongqing means pursuing corruption charges could be seen as unfair, given how widespread corruption is. And Bo’s pedigree as a Communist Party princeling – he is the son of revolutionary elder Bo Yibo, one of the “eight immortals” of Communist China – further complicates matters.
“If you do not handle this appropriately, there will be a very serious political crisis,” Li says. “This is in my view a wake-up call to really pursue political reforms before being too late. It’s really very difficult. Some people in the leadership may not agree with that assessment.”
Bo’s sacking shows how divided China’s top leaders are, much as they might want to present a united front. Some analysts say it also could be a setback for his “Princeling” faction and a boost for a rival faction centered around the Communist Youth League.
But Li believes a negotiated deal was reached that preserves the delicate equilibrium.
“It will not change the balance of power,” he says. “Because the person who replaces him is Zhang Dejiang, himself also a princeling, also a protégé of Jiang Zemin, the former party boss, just like Bo Xilai himself. That means the deal has been made, the balance of power has remained.”
China’s final leadership lineup won’t be clear for many months. But the turbulent transition is under way, and it has already claimed its first high-level victim.