In what's being called the biggest Chinese political scandal in years, Bo Xilai, the Communist Party secretary in Chongqing, was sacked Thursday. NBC's Ed Flanagan reports.
BEIJING – Wednesday’s conclusion of the National People’s Congress seemed to signal the end of Prime Minister Wen Jiaobao’s chapter in Chinese history.
It’s been widely reported though not yet confirmed that Wen—along with President Hu Jintao—is due to step down later this year.
But little did we know Wen would take the opportunity to carry on a tradition enjoyed by his meddling predecessors: publicly shaking up the political field one last time and consequently sparking the biggest political scandal the nation has seen in years.
At his final press conference yesterday, the senior Chinese leader caused a stir when he criticized the leadership of Chongqing, one of the world’s largest municipalities, for its handling of the Wang Lijun incident, when the former deputy mayor of the western megacity allegedly tried to defect to the United States.
Shattered leadership dream
The comment was viewed as an ominous sign for the future of Chongqing’s Communist Party secretary, Bo Xilai -- Wang's former boss. Bo, a tough but charismatic crime-fighting politician rapidly became a national figure through self-promotion more often associated with Western politicians.
In particular, Bo’s ruthless crackdown on organized crime in Chongqing and his promotion of Communist rhetoric and values through vehicles like “red songs,” soon gave him a national following that seemed to position him for ascension to the ultimate seat of power: China’s nine-member standing committee, which will be selected later this year.
That dream shattered this morning.
China’s state news service, Xinhua, issued a terse statement announcing that Bo had been replaced by Zhang Dejiang – currently vice premier of China’s state council – as Chongqing Party chief.
The announcement of Bo’s fall from grace was a bombshell for China’s public, who rarely get such a clear look at the political battles Chinese leaders prefer to fight behind closed doors. Bo’s dismissal quickly became the top trending topic on China’s Twitter-like service, Sina Weibo, generating an astounding 4 million tweets in the hours following the announcement.
While some netizens were quick to mock the alleged corruption of a supposedly virtuous politician, others were quick to defend Bo, whose campaign against organized crime captured the imaginations of disenfranchised people nationwide.
“I just want to have a safe and stable life… Bo gave us hope,” wrote one person on Weibo.
Si Weijiang, a Chinese lawyer, countered, “There's no need to be happy....Sometimes people do need what the leftists offer.”
It’s a dramatic political fall for the 62-year-old Bo, who just weeks before appeared to be on the cusp of becoming part of the Communist Party elite.
Ng Han Guan/AP
Bo Xilai, is pictured at the recently complete National People's Congress. Bo was removed today from his position as Chongqing Party Secretary.
Rapid rise to top
The first public sign of faltering emerged when his vice-mayor Wang Lijun spent the night at the U.S. consulate back in February. It was widely believed that he was seeking refuge after coming under a government investigation for corruption.
Prior to becoming vice-mayor, Wang had spearheaded Bo’s signature political moment: a three-year campaign against criminal gangs in Chongqing that resulted in thousands of arrests and 13 executions. Dubbed the “Smash Black” campaign, the stunt was warmly received by Chongqing’s citizens, who had long bristled at the brazenness of organized crime in the region.
Despite the acclaim that came with their success in smashing organized crime in Chongqing, the two were not immune to criticism. Like so much here in China, the line between business and governance was blurred, and Wang soon found himself embroiled in an economic war between two local moguls.
When one of the Chongqing businessmen was arrested earlier this year, the man claimed he had an audio tape of Wang threatening him and warning him to leave the other mogul alone.
Wang was soon the focus of an investigation that threatened to bring an end to his political career. The very fact that the inquiry was allowed to happen – an act that can only occur with specific authorization from the highest levels of the Communist Party – may have signaled to Wang that his fate was sealed.
He snuck off to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, where both Chinese and embassy officials confirmed he spent the night before leaving on his own accord. However, officials on both sides have declined to comment on what was discussed between Wang and U.S. consulate officials that night.
Nonetheless, the slightest possibility that Wang might have revealed sensitive secrets about the Communist Party’s inner workings was not only a massive embarrassment to his boss Bo – who had handpicked Wang as his right-hand man years before – but also a crisis that made Bo a potential political liability with China’s greatest economic rival, the United States.
The incident also opened Bo up to criticism from the ruling elite’s more liberal factions who were outraged by his anti-crime campaign, the manner of which critics say demonstrated a blatant disregard for the criminal process. In addition, his embrace of leftist policies in everyday life through “red songs,” text messages and a friendly approach to state-owned enterprise helped paint Bo as a polarizing threat to China’s liberalizing voices.
And it appears that Wen Jiabao may have shared those concerns.
Charismatic as he is controversial, Bo had been a wildcard with the potential to alter the dialogue in China’s influential nine-member standing committee, which sets economic and social policy for the nation.
Bo’s dismissal means that a potential voice of opposition to the economic and social map that Wen and Hu have laid the groundwork for over the past eight years has been removed.
Proving once again that in the world of Chinese politics, national stability reigns supreme.
NBC News’ Bo Gu and Isabella Zhong contributed research to this report.