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China's Communist Party announced Friday the expulsion of former high-flying politician Bo Xilai, who now faces wide-ranging criminal charges involving murder, bribery and sex. It's the latest development in China's most sensational political scandal for decades.
Bo was formerly Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, and a member of the 25-strong Central Committee Politburo.
According to Xinhua news agency, he is accused of abuse of power, and bearing a "major responsibility" for the case of his wife, Gu Kailai — sometimes called Bogu Kailai — who was found guilty of the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
Bo is also accused of receiving "huge bribes personally and through his family" and maintaining improper sexual relationships with a number of women. An investigation also turned up evidence suggesting his involvement in other unnamed crimes.
"Bo Xilai's actions had grave repercussions, and massively damaged the reputation of the party and the state," a Xinhua report states.
"It just looks like they're throwing the book at him," says Patrick Chovanec of Tsinghua University, pointing out that for months, many had argued the party might not even file criminal charges against Bo.
The official notice states that the violations of party discipline began while Bo was the mayor of Dalian, a post he took up in 1993, meaning the party's inquiries have gone back decades.
Earlier, an investigation by Bloomberg found that two sisters of Bo's wife control business interests estimated to be worth $126 million.
Rana Mitter, a professor of Chinese history at Oxford University, says the laundry list of offenses raises a lot of dangerous questions for the party.
"How is it possible for someone like that, first of all, to get so far in the party –- within sniffing distance of Politburo standing committee, the very top team in Chinese politics — and what does it say about his connections at a very high level in Chinese politics?" he says.
A Skeptical Public
Mitter says the government will be hard pressed to convey their side of this story to a skeptical public.
"The only way I can see that the Chinese Communist Party can spin this in a way that will serve their interests is to basically make this a morality tale. This is one rogue character, a bad apple, and the party system works because it eventually it caught up with him, even though it was very late in the day," Mitter added.
There are signs already this could be the intended strategy. The Xinhua news agency says, "Party organizations at various levels must use Bo's case as a negative example to enhance cadre education, management and supervision." It also urges "a resolute battle against corruption, leaving no room for corrupt figures to hide within the Party."
In his last public appearance at the National People's Congress in March, Bo came out fighting, angrily accusing enemies of trying to smear him and his family.
But then he disappeared from public view for seven months, his name unmentioned in official accounts of both his wife's murder trial and the trial of his former police chief, Wang Lijun, who received 15 years in jail for defection, abuse of power, bribery and "bending the law for selfish ends."
As party secretary of Chongqing, Bo launched a high-profile campaign of "red" or patriotic songs, using Mao-era mass mobilization tactics. The son of a revolutionary hero, Bo has a Communist bloodline and allies in high places, so the long delay in announcing his fate was widely seen as a sign of factional infighting.
A Sign Of Progress?
Writer Wang Kang has been one of the very few intellectuals from Chongqing willing to comment about Bo's fate. He sees Friday's announcement as progress. "This is not bad. It's good as long as the Communist party can take lessons from this and push forward political reforms. It's bad for the Maoists, the leftists. But it could be a new beginning for China."
Others are not so sure. It's not clear whether Bo's case can be wrapped up before the all-important Party Congress, when China's new leadership will be unveiled. The date for that was also announced Friday: Nov. 8, later than expected, sparking some concerns.
"There's been a lot of hope, particularly in markets, that the leadership transition would happen and the new leadership team would hit the ground running and really do something about the economy," says Tsinghua University's Chovanec. "And waiting until November, that's actually a long time to wait on some pretty immediate issues."
Meanwhile, China's vibrant microblogs are buzzing with speculation, since Bo's name is suddenly no longer censored as a search term. Rumors are flying about secret videotapes and many millions of dollars stashed away. But so too is the bitterness.
"This country has no truth," declares one.
Another writes, "The bankruptcy of Bo's political credibility raises a more serious political issue. If, after the 18th party congress, the Communist party keeps on talking about political reform, but does little, then it's not impossible that the current system will conceive another Bo Xilai."
China's new leadership will be looking to start afresh, but Bo's case will cast a long shadow over the succession. As Mitter puts it, their real problem is that Bo is "a symptom of a much wider pathology" infecting an entire political system.