Bo Xilai, the high-profile Chinese official who was once seen as a favorite for elevation to the top echelon of Chinese political power, has been removed from his office as Communist Party secretary of the southwestern megacity of Chongqing, the official Xinhua news agency announced. Bo’s axing comes one day after he was publicly criticized by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Bo’s rise was derailed last month when a key deputy, former police chief and Chongqing vice mayor Wang Lijun, made a surprise visit to a U.S. consulate. Wang spent an evening at the consulate and was then detained by state security officers upon leaving. Wang has also been removed from his official post, Xinhua announced today.
At a press conference yesterday at the closing of the National People’s Congress (NPC), Wen called on Chongqing officials to “reflect and earnestly draw lessons from the Wang Lijun incident.”
Chinese politics are murky at the best of times, but Bo’s removal comes during a sensitive leadership-transition period, when there is a strong tendency toward even greater secrecy and much of the decisionmaking happens behind close doors. But the Wang Lijun incident has thrown some of that maneuvering into the open. This fall President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen will begin stepping down from their official posts, with Vice President Xi Jinping and Vice Premier Li Keqiang seen as the most likely candidates for their replacement. The makeup of the Politburo standing committee, the country’s highest-level decisionmaking body, will also be reconfigured, with seven of the nine members expected to be replaced. Bo was considered to be a favorite for one of those seats until Wang appeared on Feb. 7 at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, a city about 200 miles (320 km) from Chongqing. During a press conference at the NPC last week Bo denied that he was under investigation or that he had offered to resign. Bo said he took responsibility for everything that happens in Chongqing but acknowledged he was surprised by Wang’s sudden appearance at the U.S. consulate.
In recent years Bo, 62, pushed an aggressive crackdown on corruption and organized crime in Chongqing. He also sought to revive Mao-era songs and similar “red culture.” Those campaigns, combined with a “Chongqing model” of economic development that emphasized a better distribution of wealth and improved public services, helped raise Bo’s stature both at home and abroad. But those efforts also had detractors who suggested that Bo’s antigang crackdown, which was led by Wang, ran roughshod over civil rights. And the red-culture campaign reminded some of the Cultural Revolution, when such songs were popular. In his criticism of the Chongqing officials yesterday, Wen made an oblique reference to the Cultural Revolution, citing a major Communist Party plenum held shortly after the end of that chaotic and bloody political campaign and saying that “our practice must be based on the experiences and lessons we have gained from history.”
The state press announcement said that Bo would be replaced in Chongqing by Zhang Dejiang, the former party secretary of the prosperous coastal province of Guangdong and a graduate of Kim Il Sung University in North Korea. Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution, says that like Bo, Zhang is also a “princeling,” the child of a former party official. More significantly both Bo and Zhang are protégés of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Thus replacing Bo with Zhang retains a balance of party factions, Li says. “Based on what happened, we do know a deal has been made,” Li says. “The person who replaced Bo is also from the same faction.” Political analysts had previously speculated that Bo would be given an honorary position, possible at a political body such as the NPC. The Xinhua announcement gave no indication of Bo’s next position, but it is safe to say that he is not moving up.
Li, of Brookings, says he expects that the Communist Party will eventually announce an investigation and possibly charges against Bo. There is a chance that Bo could be removed from his position on the 25-member Politburo as well, Li says, something that hasn’t happened since former Shanghai Mayor Chen Liangyu was removed from office in 2006 and jailed for corruption. But Bo’s downfall is happening more suddenly, and under a more intense public spotlight. On Thursday after his removal was announced Bo Xilai become a top 10 trending term on Sina Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like service. “China has changed a lot in these six years and that gives a tremendous burden for the national leadership to tell people what really happening,” Li says. “If they give an interpretation that does not satisfy the public, there could be strong reactions and it will only embarrass the top leadership.”