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The mysterious fall of China's Bo Xilai

A political scandal has rocked China: Bo Xilai, former party secretary in Chongqing, has lost his position in the Politburo. Before a change of power this fall, the Communist Party is trying to show a united front.

On Tuesday at precisely 11 p.m. Beijing time, a statement from China's official news agency Xinhua confirmed the rumors that had been circulating online for days: Bo Xilai, who until mid-February had been Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, China's largest city, had lost his seat in the Politburo and the Central Committee of China's Communist Party. Bo had been the charismatic hope of the so-called New Left, the son of a famous revolutionary veteran and figurehead of the upper caste of "princelings,"

With the news, Bo's meteoric political rise came to an abrupt end. His wife, Gu Kailai, is under investigation for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, who was found dead last November in a Chongqing hotel room. According to Xinhua, the two had a business disagreement. The official diagnosis of Heywood's death was alcohol poisoning, but the body was quickly cremated without an autopsy.

Poisoning, flight, house arrest

The linking of Gu Kailai with the death of the 41-year-old businessman and Bo family confidant would fit perfectly into the events surrounding the former party chief.

In early February, the police chief of Chongqing, Wang Lijun, was demoted without notice and without reason. The firing was supposedly preceded by a confrontation with Bo. Wang allegedly told his officers that poison was suspected in Heywood's death, and would not sign a report which stated the cause of death was alcohol.

Wang Lijun

Wang's flight brought the affair to international attention

After the disappearance of some of his close associates, Wang feared for his life and fled to the US Consulate in Chengdu, 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Chongqing, reportedly seeking political asylum. Police from Chongqing then surrounded the consulate, drawing international attention - to the great annoyance of the leadership in Beijing.

A day later, Wang left the consulate - at his own request, according to reports. Officials from Beijing escorted the former police chief past the Chongqing police and to the capital. Since then, he has been accused of high treason.

Following the annual meeting of China's National People's Congress in March, in which Bo made his last public appearance defending his wife at a press conference, the party secretary was removed from his post without reason. Since that time, the former political star has been under house arrest, and discussions of a power struggle within the highest echelons of the Communist Party have come out in the open.

Background power struggle

The ambitious Bo Xilai had been aiming to rise to the center of political power in China - the nine-member Standing Committee of the Communist Party. The committee seats are due to be newly filled when the 18th national congress of the Communist Party meets in the fall, and various cliques within the party have been jockeying for power and influence in China's highest decision-making body.

Bo had been a prominent representative of the so-called New Left, a group that wants to address the country's widening gap between rich and poor and the growing corruption with more government control.

CHONGQING skyline

For five years, Bo Xilai experimented with left-wing politics in China's largest city of Chongqing

At the same time, they want to continue the revolutionary tradition. Bo had banned television advertising in Chongqing, and called for the singing of revolutionary songs from the Mao era. He launched an anti-corruption campaign, during which thousands were convicted and dozens were executed. Justice and the rule of law fell by the wayside.

In opposition are the liberal forces of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who want to solve the country's problems with more reforms and want less government control and more emphasis on rule of law. Wen recently spoke out in favor of breaking the monopoly enjoyed by the country's large state banks.

China watcher Willy Lam says a classic power struggle has been playing out before the eyes of the world. But now, after a month in which the power struggle played out behind closed doors, party leaders want to present a united front.

"This is now in the interest of all factions," Lam said in an interview with DW, adding that the "behind-the-scenes horse-trading" and "intrigue" will only make sense once the new Standing Committee is firmly established.

Increased censorship

China's state-run press has also called for unity, suggesting citizens follow the example of President Hu Jintao - an indication that unity is in rather short supply at the moment.

Even the vastness of the Internet and Chinese microblogs similar to Twitter are being brought under control. On the Tuesday evening edition of the national television CCTV's main news program, the three heads of the country's most influential online portals promised to stop the spreading of "rumors" with all the means at their disposal. Since Wednesday, searches for the names Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai on Chinese microblogs have come up empty.

Author: Matthias von Hein / cmk
Editor: Gregg Benzow

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