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China Sacks Outspoken Politician As Rumors Swirl

Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai leaves after the third plenary meeting of the National People's Congress at The Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 9. Bo had been seen as a leading contender to access the top rungs of power in China, but in a dramatic reversal of fortune, he was sacked Thursday amid a rare public scandal. (Getty Images)

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 on 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 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 during his annual news conference, saying the Chongqing authorities "must seriously reflect on and draw lessons from the Wang Lijun incident."

What's happening to Bo Xilai is fairly obviously a classic case of political intrigue and backstabbing.
Willy Wo-lap Lam, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong

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 protege 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.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We're going to spend the next few minutes in China, where Beijing is approaching its once-a-decade transfer of power at the top. One man expected to be named to a coveted leadership position has been sacked. And as Louisa Lim reports, that sudden fall of this flamboyant politician offers a glimpse into the vicious political struggle playing out behind the scenes.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: After weeks of fevered speculation, the end when it came was swift and succinct. A single sentence from Xinhua news agency ended the career of Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, who until last month seemed to be heading straight for China's top leadership. It offers one glimpse into the Machiavellian power struggles playing out amongst China's leadership; that's according to Willy Wo Lap Lam at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

WILLY WO-LAP LAM: What's happening to Bo Xilai is fairly obviously a classic case of political intrigue and backstabbing. So it is quite possible that the Bo Xilai affair is a recurrence of the mechanism of one faction using the anti-corruption card against the other.

PREMIER WEN JIABAO: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Just yesterday, Premier Wen Jiabao made a thinly-veiled attack on Bo Xilai, saying lessons should be learned. He was referring to the scandal surrounding Bo's former police chief, Wang Lijun, who last month sought refuge overnight in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. He's now in the custody of the Chinese authorities. The premier also implicitly criticized Bo's vision of China, known as the Chongqing Model, which involves mass mobilization and a revival of Maoist values.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

LIM: One key element was singing red – or Communist – songs. Bo also advocated closing the wealth gap and a crackdown on the mafia. That led to 2,000 arrests and 13 executions, with scant regard for due process or the word of law. Yang Fan wrote a book on the Chongqing model. He says Bo's mistakes include being too Maoist.

YANG FAN: (Through translator) He has no future. He committed very serious leftist mistakes. Even the leftists in Beijing will all be criticized and will need to reflect. 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.

BO XILAI: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Bo Xilai made his last closely watched appearance at the legislature six days ago. He was ever the showman. He made what looks now like a pre-emptive attempt to address rumors of corruption swirling around his family, in particular his son, Bo Guagua, who studied at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

XILAI: (Through translator) A few people are smearing Chongqing, smearing myself, smearing my family and even saying my son who studied abroad drove a red Ferrari. It's a pack of lies. I feel really furious. It's a pack of lies.

LIM: How to deal with Bo presents a big dilemma. Cheng Li from the Brookings Institution believes Bo's popularity means pursuing corruption charges could be seen as unfair, given how widespread corruption is. And Bo's pedigree as a princeling – the son of a Communist hero – complicates matters further. Here's Cheng Li.

CHENG LI: If you do not handle appropriately, there will be very serious political crisis. In my view it's a wake-up call to really pursue political reforms before being too late. But it's very, very difficult. Some people in the leadership may not agree with that assessment.

LIM: Much as they want to present a united front, this sacking shows how divided China's top leaders are. Bo's downfall could be a setback for his faction, known as The Princelings. But his replacement, Zhang Dejiang, is also a Princeling. The final leadership lineup won't be clear for many months. But the turbulent transition is underway, and it has already claimed its first high-level victim.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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