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Updated: March 16, 2012 07:36 IST

China replaces Chongqing party chief after scandal

Ananth Krishnan
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Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai during a session of the National People's Congress held in Beijing. File photo
Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai during a session of the National People's Congress held in Beijing. File photo

The Communist Party of China (CPC) said on Thursday it had removed Politburo member Bo Xilai from his position as Chongqing party chief in the wake of a political scandal that has been seen as dealing a blow to resurgent conservative-leaning forces in the party.

The removal of Mr. Bo, who had in recent years emerged as a key figure in the next generation of the leadership, has exposed divisions in the leadership ahead of a crucial and once-in-a-decade transition that takes place later this year, analysts said.

Until recently, he was seen as a frontrunner to occupy a seat on the next nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, the small group of high leaders that effectively runs China. But his future had been under a cloud in recent weeks after his right-hand man, the former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, became the subject of an investigation by central authorities.

After Mr. Wang appeared at a US Consulate in Chengdu last month reportedly seeking asylum, the political scandal burst into the open - a rarity in a country where elite politics is a closely-guarded affair. Mr. Wang's relationship with Mr. Bo had, over the past few weeks, become the subject of heated discussion for millions of Chinese microbloggers, embarrassing the leadership days ahead of the annual parliament session.

Mr. Bo’s position had appeared perilous on Wednesday when Premier Wen Jiabao told reporters that Chongqing authorities needed to “seriously reflect on and draw lessons” from the incident, which Beijing had “taken very seriously”. The comments were seen as all but ruling out his chances of securing a key post next year. Few, however, expected a dramatic firing of Mr. Bo at a time when the leadership was focused on ensuring a smooth transition.

Mr. Bo, who still serves on the Politburo, was replaced by Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang as Chongqing party secretary. Li Yuanchao, head of the CPC’s powerful Organisation Department, told a meeting of officials in Chongqing on Thursday morning that the decision had been made “after careful consideration and based on current circumstances”.

Like his fall, the rise of Bo Xilai was a far from usual story in the carefully-controlled world of CPC politics. Breaking the mould of cautious party politicians, Mr. Bo had catapulted himself into national prominence through controversial political campaigns. Adding to his appeal were his charisma and background – like Vice President and anointed successor Xi Jinping, he is a “princeling”, the son of an “immortal” CPC revolutionary leader.

Mr. Bo had recently emerged as a favourite among a resurgent New Left that had questioned the push for further reforms and called for a return to Mao-inspired populist policies. Mr. Bo's governance, dubbed by some as the "Chongqing model", included a greater emphasis on social welfare as well as campaigns to revive "Red culture", including the singing of Red songs and sending students to work in the countryside.

For a country that has sought to discard the memories of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, Mr. Bo’s campaigns, although popular in Chongqing, were seen as divisive by some. “I did not agree with some of Bo’s campaigns. We are no longer in the age of Chairman Mao,” Mao Yushi, one of China’s leading economists who has been critical of the New Left, told The Hindu. “Society is changing and we have suffered enough in Mao’s age. The end of Bo’s term means a new political direction for Chongqing.”

Even Mr. Wen on Wednesday underscored Beijing’s unease with Mr. Bo’s unconventional approach. He said “the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution and feudalism have yet to be fully eliminated”, and stressed that the CPC had decided, in 1978, to embark on the path of reforms and draw a line over that turbulent decade in an apparent criticism of the Chongqing approach.

The unusual public criticism of a Politburo member had suggested that the party's highest leaders, including President and General Secretary Hu Jintao, had all but decided to sideline Mr. Bo, whose less-than-promising fate now also leaves uncertain the aspirations of his many supporters.

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