China's official media and vast censorship apparatus moved quickly on Wednesday to stem any dissent from supporters of suspended Politburo member Bo Xilai, mounting a campaign in the pages of official newspapers to denounce Mr. Bo while clamping down on any criticism of the move to sideline the popular politician.
The Communist Party of China's (CPC) official People's Daily newspaper said in a strongly-worded editorial that Mr. Bo, who was on Tuesday suspended from the powerful 25-member Politburo for “serious discipline violations”, had caused “damage to the cause and the image of the Party and State”.
The son of a famous Communist revolutionary leader, Mr. Bo was until recently seen as a key member of the next generation of the leadership. He fell from grace after his once close associate Wang Lijun, the police chief in the municipality of Chongqing where he served as party secretary, turned up at a U.S. consulate in Chengdu on February 6 seeking asylum.
The two had reportedly fallen out following the death of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, in Chongqing last year. His death was initially blamed by authorities on excessive alcohol consumption. But Mr. Wang claimed he had evidence that Heywood, who was a close associate of the Bo family, had been poisoned.
Authorities said on Tuesday they were investigating Mr. Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, over his death and had detained her along with an “orderly” from the Bo household on the suspected crime of intentional homicide.
The People's Daily in its editorial said the Wang Lijun incident was “a serious political event leaving very negative impacts at home and abroad”, while Heywood's death was “a serious criminal case involving the family and close staff of a Party and state leader”.
The sidelining of Mr. Bo has been seen by Chinese analysts as among the biggest political scandals to hit the Communist Party after the purging of liberal leader Zhao Ziyang during the Tiananmen Square protests two decades ago.
The charismatic politician hailed from the highest section of the party elite, enjoying wide support among fellow “princelings” – the children of former leaders – People’s Liberation Army (PLA) generals and those on the Left, who supported his “Chongqing model” of welfare-focused development and attempts to revive Mao-inspired “Red culture”.
A corruption crackdown he spearheaded in Chongqing won him national attention, but also angered some Party leaders who saw the ambitious Mr. Bo as using the campaign to target his rivals and openly push for a seat on the powerful nine-member Politburo Standing Committee.
Reflecting fears of dissent over the popular politician's removal, the People's Daily called for the “firm support for the correct decision” and for “people to maintain a high level of ideological unity with the CPC Central Committee”. “The Party does not tolerate any special member who is above the law,” it said. “No one can interfere with law enforcement and anyone who violates the law could not be at large.”
While official newspapers denounced Mr. Bo, censors worked overtime to remove any message of support on microblogs or websites. News of his suspension and the investigations targeting his wife were widely discussed on microblogs on Wednesday. Though searches under his name were being restricted, netizens cryptically posted more than 200,000 messages on the “big news”.
The scandal has been seen by the bloggers as a first in being played out, at least in part, in the public domain rather than behind the closed doors of the Central leadership compound. News of Mr. Wang hiding at the U.S. Embassy first broke on Sina Weibo, which emerged as a platform for both news and debate even as the state media remained silent over Mr. Bo's fate until Tuesday's announcement.
“Without microblogs, the whole process would have been a lot more opaque,” said Kaiser Kuo, director of international communications for Baidu, China’s biggest search engine. “This sort of thing would have proceeded under the cover of darkness, more than has been the case.”
But many of the leaks that spread through Weibo came from the authorities, according to Chinese blogger and journalist Michael Anti, who said it reflected a new approach to “guide public opinion” rather than a real challenge to the state's monopoly over information.
“Everything we see being leaked since February came from the central government,” he said, starting with reports in February of a text message reportedly sent from the telephone of Wang Lijun that first hinted at the Bo family’s involvement in the death of the British businessman. “This was the same way Mao used to mobilise masses against corrupt officials,” he said. “They wanted to put this message out”.
Authorities have, however, been careful to censor comments critical of the decision to remove Mr. Bo. Searches for Bo Xilai have been restricted on Chinese microblogs, and on Wednesday, text messages that carried Mr. Bo’s name were also being blocked by mobile telephone operators.
Two Leftist websites, Mao Flag and Utopia, have been shut down in recent days for posting articles criticising Mr. Bo’s sidelining. Another Leftist website called Jinbushe, or Social Progress, that is hosted on an overseas server praised Mr. Bo in an article on Wednesday. “No matter how bad Bo Xilai is, we still support him since he seems the most trustworthy politician among them all,” it said. “No matter how the Chongqing Model is blamed and downgraded by the party, we still support it.”