Bo Xilai, one of China’s highest-flying Communist party officials and contender for its top leadership, has been purged in the most momentous political upheaval in the country in two decades.
A member of the 25-member Communist party politburo and the powerful “princeling” son of a revolutionary hero, Mr Bo has been embroiled in a political scandal since early last month, when his handpicked police chief attempted to defect to the US, alleging that Mr Bo was trying to have him killed.
Mr Bo’s dismissal sent shockwaves through the nation yesterday and raised fears that widening rifts among increasingly entrenched factions could spill over into a wider political crisis.
“Bo Xilai is absolutely the most significant political figure to be purged since Zhao Ziyang in 1989, and in terms of impact, this event is potentially equal to what happened at that time,” said Cheng Li, an expert in elite Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution.
Zhao was head of the Communist party in 1989 but was dismissed for refusing to declare martial law and send the army to break up huge student-led demonstrations centred in Tiananmen Square. Zhao was placed under house arrest and remained there until his death in 2005.
Beloved by foreign businesspeople and diplomats for his charm, Mr Bo has enjoyed considerable popular support for his emphasis on improving people’s lives.
But he is reviled by many intellectuals and officials among the top ranks of the party, especially advocates of political reform, for being a ruthless, power-hungry “careerist” and “demagogue”.
The government announced that Mr Bo would be replaced by Zhang Dejiang – a vice-premier and North Korea-trained economist – as party secretary of the south-western metropolis of Chongqing.
The decision to remove Mr Bo was announced internally to senior party officials on Wednesday night, immediately after the close of the annual 10-day session of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, according to people close to the Chinese leadership.
Apart from announcing his dismissal, the government gave no further information on Mr Bo’s fate, though people familiar with the matter said he was almost certainly under some form of house arrest to stop him fleeing the country.
There was no word on whether Mr Bo would have to step down from his position on the politburo, China’s second-highest decision-making body.
Until last month, he had been a frontrunner for promotion this year to the nine-member politburo standing committee, which wields ultimate power in China.
But in early February Wang Lijun, his police chief, fled to a US consulate in western China and requested asylum. Mr Wang left the consulate after more than 24 hours and was immediately detained and placed under investigation.
The dismissal of Mr Bo, a conservative strongman when it came to questions of political reform, will be seen as a victory for more liberal reformist elements in the party, led by premier Wen Jiabao.
Mr Bo’s critics have hit at his “Cultural Revolution-style” policies in Chongqing – involving use of “red” propaganda and a crackdown on businessmen accused of being gangsters – as a dangerous throwback.