Beware the Ides of March.
A high profile Chinese politician should have heeded those Shakespearean words as he found himself suddenly out of a job on March 15 and at the center of the most public airing of Chinese political drama in years, giving the world a glimpse into the intense power struggle happening among China’s usually stolid ruling elites.
After a predictable week of political pageantry at China’s annual National People’s Congress where over 3,000 delegates rubber-stamped uncontested laws and clapped in near unison, a bombshell dropped this morning: Bo Xilai, the ambitious and controversial politician from the western megacity of Chongqing was sacked from his job as that city’s Communist Party secretary.
Bo, 62, was a Communist Party heavyweight, a member of the Politburo, a so-called “princeling” – son of one of the revolutionary leaders – and a media darling who openly campaigned for a seat on powerful nine-person Standing Committee (essentially the nine people who makes all the decisions in China).
Bo was known as a party conservative (in China that would be the far left) who recently tried to repopularize Cultural Revolution-era propaganda songs in Chongqing and gained national prominence through his tough anti-gang campaign. Bo was heavily favored to be promoted this fall.
Now, however, his political future has been derailed.
A former commerce minister, the outspoken Bo usually rode into Beijing followed by the adoration of cameras. This year the cameras were still there, but he was burdened by the specter of scandal.
Just last month his former lieutenant, China’s “hero cop” Wang Lijun, was caught apparently trying to defect to the United States. Wang had helped Bo root out organized crime in Chongqing. Wang was suddenly stripped of his law enforcement duties earlier this year and sidelined to a desk job leading many to wonder if he had fallen out with Bo.
In early February, Wang made a dramatic run for the U.S. consulate in the neighboring city of Chengdu while being followed by a reportedly 70-strong convoy of cars with Chongqing plates. Eventually Beijing intervened, brought Wang to the Chinese capital, placed him under investigation and he has not been heard of since.
That is when the attention shifted towards Bo.
Bo had apparently made enemies inside the Party and it was on full display just a day earlier when China’s Premier Wen Jiabao, in his last press conference all but chided Bo by name.
“The present Chongqing Municipal Party committee and the municipal government must reflect seriously and learn from the Wang Lijun incident,” Wen said as a murmur ran through the Chinese and foreign press, instantly acknowledging who Wen was referring to.
When Bo was noticeably absent last Thursday at the National People’s Congress meeting, rumors began swirling that he had offered his resignation. However in a press conference the next day, just less than a week before his sacking, a defiant Bo refuted that claim.
“That’s totally a rumor, totally imaginary,” Bo told the press. “There’s no such thing as a resignation.”
It turns out he was right about the resignation.
“The bigger picture is that Bo’s open campaigning for power, and his use of the media to mobilize popular support, shattered the facade of unity at the top of the party,” Susan Shirk, former U.S. Deputy Assistant of Secretary of State told the Wall Street Journal.
“That campaigning, not any of the things he did in Chongqing, was the reason they had to get rid of him. Ever since Tiananmen Square they have tried to keep leadership in a black box.”
This year the Chinese government is going through a once-in-decade transition of power and the Communist Party elders want nothing to shake the boat.
The news that Bo was unceremoniously dumped came in a terse statement today by the state-run Xinhua News agency. Within hours, Bo Xilai’s name garnered over a million comments on the China’s microblogs.
Chongqing residents seem to already miss him as a webuser called “Fine Snow” wrote, “If you are not a true Chongqing’er, you have no way to understand Bo’s status in Chongqing citizens’ hearts. Outsiders only know about ‘singing red’ and Mao poetry readings, but Bo Xilai oversaw the fastest development in Chongqing over the last few years.”
Xinhua announced that Bo will be replaced by a colleague from his own faction, a current Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang, who famously tried to cover-up SARS outbreak in 2003 when he was party secretary of the southern province of Guangdong.
As for Bo, his future remains uncertain. He is, as of this writing, still a member for the Politburo. Whatever his fate may be, it will inextricably be linked to his former lieutenant, Wang Lijun who was also finally officially relieved of his job on this day, the Ides of March.