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Bo Xilai fired in Chinese Communist Party leadership shakeup

Published: March 15, 2012 | 7:18 am
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BEIJING — In a major shakeup in the Chinese Communist Party’s top ranks, Bo Xilai, the charismatic but controversial official known for promoting a “red revival” campaign, has been fired as party chief in Chongqing, Xinhua news reported Thursday.

Bo is being replaced by a vice premier, Zhang Dejiang, who will also take Bo’s position on the local Chongqing Party Communist branch and its standing committee, Xinhua said.

The report made no mention of whether Bo also lost his position on the Party central committee and Politburo in Beijing.

The report came one day after Prime Minister Wen Jiabao used a press conference to publicly rebuke Bo for a Feb 6 scandal that saw the former Chongqing police chief seek refuge for 24 hours at the American consulate in Chengdu. Initial reports last month said the police chief, Wang Lijun, was seeking political asylum from the U.S. government, although speculation immediately began swirling online that the police chief really was seeking protection from Chongqing police and that he may have been carrying with him evidence of corruption.

Before that episode, Bo was widely tipped to be in line for a promotion to China’s most powerful body, the Politburo Standing Committee, in a leadership change due at the 18th Party Congress this fall. Wang, who most recently held the title of vice mayor, had been Bo’s right-hand man during a sweeping anti-crime crackdown in Chongqing that was popular with the public but raised questions about heavy-handed tactics and human rights abuses.

“This is an earthquake before the 18th Party Congress,” said Wu Jiaxiang, a Chinese scholar. He called the dismissal Thursday the end of just one power struggle over the seats on the next Standing Committee.

According to Chinese media reports, Li Yuanchao, head of the Communist Party’s secretive and powerful organization department which controls personnel and staffing, traveled personally to Chongqing Thursday to announce the decision on Bo’s sacking to local officials there. He said the firing was deciding by the Party central committee “after prudent consideration, based on the current overall situation,” according to Xinhua.

Wang is now being held by security officials in Beijing while being investigated for unspecified reasons. Immediately after word of Bo’s firing was announced, People’s Daily online, the Web site of the Communist Party’s main mouthpiece, reported that Wang had also been officially removed from his position as vice-mayor.

Political analysts of China’s secretive internal politics said the question now was whether Bo was also being investigated.

Some said the timing of the news of Bo’s firing — immediately after the closing of China’s annual 10-day legislative session in Beijing, which all top officials, including Bo, attended — could mean that Bo would remain here in the capital and never return to Chongqing.

Unlike most Chinese leaders who prefer to avoid public attention, Bo had built a loyal following and attracted media coverage in his south-central Chinese mega-city. He cultivated a modern-day personality cult among China’s so-called “new Leftists,” who supported his push for a more equitable wealth distribution and his campaign for Mao-era pageantry, including organizing mass events to sing patriotic songs.

“This is certainly very bad news for Bo Xilai, and we’ll hear more in the coming days or weeks,” said Cheng Li, a China scholar and expert on China’s elite politics with the Brookings Institution in Washington. He called the timing of the news “quite remarkable” and said, “There’s a possibility the investigation against him has already started.”

“It’s still the beginning,” Li said. “Potentially, it could lead to a domino effect — what direction, we still do not know.”

Bo’s replacement in Chongqing, Zhang Dejiang, is known to be, like Bo, as a protégé of former president Jiang Zemin, who is elderly and ailing but believed to still play a powerful behind-the-scenes role. The replacement of Bo by someone of the same “faction” suggested a political deal had been worked out beforehand to preserve the balance between various power groups.

Zhang is one of the Chinese Communist Party’s North Korea experts. He speaks Korean, and his official biography says he studied at the Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, North Korea.

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