ONE of the crown princes of the Chinese Communist Party has been abruptly purged ahead of China’s once-in-a-decade change of leaders this Autumn.
On the Ides of March, 62-year-old Bo Xilai became the victim of the first major political assassination in China for six years.
A one-line report published on the website of the People’s Daily, the official Party newspaper, said Mr Bo, a former Commerce minister and a member of China’s 25-man Politburo, would be replaced as party secretary of the sprawling central city of Chongqing.
His replacement, Zhang Dejiang, is a North Korea-educated economist and vice premier in charge of China’s energy, telecommunications and transport sectors.
The dismissal came just one day after Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, obliquely criticised Mr Bo in a live press conference in Beijing and called for "serious" reflection over a recent scandal involving him.
Until last month, Mr Bo appeared on course to be promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee, making him one of the nine most powerful people in China. Instead he has seen his political career shredded in just a few weeks.
His dismissal from the Politburo has not been announced, but analysts said he was unlikely to be able to cling onto the position.
The son of Bo Yibo, one of the “eight immortals” who helped to piece China back together after the terrors of Chairman Mao’s final years, Mr Bo has previously seemed untouchable.
His troubles began with an episode worthy of a spy drama. At the beginning of February, his former police chief, Wang Lijun, suddenly appeared at the United States consulate in Chengdu, around 210 miles from Chongqing.
Mr Wang, it was rumoured, wanted to defect and had information to trade on Mr Bo. The two men were close for a decade, and Mr Bo brought Mr Wang with him to Chongqing in 2008 to spearhead an operation against the city’s mafia.
Chinese police cars quickly encircled the consulate, but Mr Wang spent the night. The following morning, he was spirited away to Beijing and has not been heard from since.
Mr Bo was travelling at the time in Yunnan province. “I felt like it came out of nowhere [...] I feel like I put my trust in the wrong person as a manager,” he said last week, while insisting that he himself was not under investigation and had not offered to resign.
But he was unable to shake the rumours surrounding him, and his supporters within the party shied away, unsure of what Mr Wang might have told the Americans.
“No one wanted to stand by him without knowing exactly how much evidence Wang Lijun actually had,” said Zhang Ming, a professor of politics at Renmin university. “Besides, the central committee had given him a lot of chances but he has failed to cooperate with them in the past,” he added.
Mr Bo’s demise is the biggest upheaval among the Communist party’s elite since Chen Liangyu was purged as Shanghai’s party secretary in 2006. Ahead of the leadership transition, it is more evidence of jockeying among the various factions within the party.
Mr Bo had pinned his colours to the mast of Jiang Zemin, the former president who remains a highly influential party elder, despite now being 86 years old. His replacement, Mr Zhang, is also a protege of Mr Jiang, suggesting that a compromise deal had been struck between this faction and the supporters of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, who are now both aiming to become party elders as they move into retirement.
Mr Bo’s dismissal also suggests the current leadership still has a sting in its tail, despite moving into the final few months of its tenure.
Professor Zhang suggested that Mr Bo’s enormous popularity, derived in part from his astute manipulation of nostalgia for Chairman Mao’s era, had troubled Mr Hu and Mr Wen.
“Mr Bo has launched Mao-style campaigns: the attacks on the gangs in Chongqing and the singing of revolutionary songs. This kind of populism was very dangerous to the party, especially when it succeeded in winning the hearts of many people,” he said. “The party is worried that Mr Bo could be another cult figure like Mao Tse-tung.”
Mr Bo, who has a masters degree in journalism, was fond of grand gestures, once even taking nearly 7,000 officials from his province to the city of Shenzhen to show them its open economy. He branded Dalian as the “Hong Kong of the North” and Chongqing as the “Chicago of China”.
But he was a divisive figure, creating enemies by riding roughshod, at times, over the hierarchy of the party and by his unwavering support for Mr Jiang. During his time in Dalian he is said to have dismayed some party members with the ruthlessness of his persecution of the Falun Gong movement, and others questioned why his second wife, Gu Kailai, had traded on his name in order to secure business for her law firm.
Most recently, Mr Bo’s son, Bo Guagua, was reported to be driving a red Ferrari around Beijing, an unaffordable luxury considering his father’s official salary. Mr Bo angrily denied the report, and also said that his son’s schooling at Papplewick, Harrow, Oxford university and now Harvard had all been paid for with scholarships.