A day after rising politician Bo Xilai was ousted as party chief in Chongqing, the online community intensely debated his removal, marking a rare instance of internal Communist Party of China politics spilling out into the public domain.
On Thursday, news of the departure of Mr. Bo, a Politburo member widely regarded as one of more charismatic politicians and, until recently, seen as a key figure in the next generation of the leadership, was the most discussed topic on Sina Weibo, a popular Twitter-equivalent. It drew more than 200,000 posts from the site's 100 million users.
The reactions were, in keeping with Mr. Bo's controversial political legacy, both divided and passionate. Many comments called for greater transparency in domestic politics, reflecting growing public interest in political issues and signalling an end to the days when CPC politics only played out behind closed doors,
“China's politics is in urgent need of openness and transparency,” Xie Youping, director of the Procedural Law Research Centre of Shanghai's Fudan University, wrote to the 43,500 followers of his Weibo account.
In recent weeks, microblogs emerged as the biggest source of information about the political scandal . Questions about his future first emerged after reports on microblogs last month revealing that his associate, the former Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, had sought refuge at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu.
After days of speculation – which intensified after one microblogger posted a photograph of what appeared to be a flight ticket of Mr. Wang's to Beijing – the central government was forced to issue a statement acknowledging that the police chief was indeed being investigated in the capital.
“The development of Wang Lijun's case reflected that China's political life is so closed and mysterious,” Mr. Xie said. “It also shows that the government really underestimates the IQ [intelligence quotient] of the public.”
Following Premier Wen Jiabao's comments to reporters on Wednesday that the Chongqing leadership needed to learn from its mistakes, tens of thousands of fresh comments discussing Mr. Bo's fate appeared online.
But despite the thirst for information, the statement announcing his removal as party secretary, issued by the official Xinhua news agency the following day, contained only one sentence explaining the decision. It said cryptically that he was removed “after careful consideration, based on current circumstances and the overall situation”.
Unlike other Chinese politicians, the charismatic Mr. Bo thrived under the media spotlight — he had, in fact, hoped to become a journalist before deciding to follow his father's footsteps and joining CPC politics. As the son of a revolutionary leader, his moves were always closely followed, but it was his three-year term in Chongqing that brought him most attention.
Mr. Bo's populist policies, which included a corruption crackdown that brought down 1,500 officials and won him wide praise, as well as Mao-inspired campaigns to revive “Red culture”, sparked debate. His “Chongqing model” made him popular , but was also criticised for invoking the turbulent Cultural Revolution and giving short shrift to the rule of law in going after the corrupt. “The major reason for Bo's dismissal is the Chongqing model, but reports will not say so,” wrote the eminent writer Murong Xuecun to his 1.6 million Weibo followers.
But many Internet users from Chongqing and Dalian, where Mr. Bo served earlier, hit out at his removal. “Today there is sadness in Chongqing,” wrote Fang Wen, a blogger from Sichuan.
Sun Liping, a professor of social sciences of Tsinghua University, expressed concern that while there were problems in the Chongqing Model, echoed by the Premier who warned against another Cultural Revolution, Beijing was increasingly imposing its will on regional governments.
“The Chongqing model will encourage other officials to reform according to their own situations,” he said. “The government is centralising its power by dismissing Bo. And I cannot say this is right”.