BEIJING — On the same day that state media announced that one of the nation's most famous politicians was being removed from office, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin fielded a news conference question: Was Bo Xilai's unceremonious exit a sign of turmoil in central leadership?
"That sort of idea is rather absurd," Liu retorted.
With Beijing offering no details on why Bo was shunted aside Thursday from his post as Chinese Communist Party secretary of the megacity of Chongqing, there's been little to go on besides conjecture — absurd, informed or otherwise — to explain his departure. That's unlikely to change in the coming days.
Bo was widely seen as rocketing toward being selected later this year for China's politburo standing committee, the set of nine officials who are at the center of power here. Then suddenly, that prospect seemed finished.
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Had rivals used his former police chief's stay at a U.S. consulate last month as ammunition to stunt Bo's career? Could that former chief have divulged things of such a damning nature that Bo's continued rise simply wasn't possible? Was Bo done in by his own flamboyant style, which stepped on the feet of other Chinese officials, men in drab suits who prefer rule-by-consensus? Did Bo's revival of Mao Zedong-era culture in Chongqing alarm senior leaders?
Just Wednesday, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had warned of the return of something like Mao's bloody Cultural Revolution should China not achieve political reform.
Bo's downfall was quite public, but the lack of clarity about what's been happening behind the scenes makes if difficult, even for China watchers used to an opaque subject, to piece together the implications.
Xinhua, the official news wire, paraphrasing a Communist Party official at a meeting in Chongqing, offered only that the party's "Central Committee made the decision after discreet consideration and based on current circumstances and the overall situation."
Making matters even harder to gauge is that while Bo is no longer the head of Chongqing, he for now appears to have held on to his seat on the 25-person politburo. He could be awaiting an investigation and further disgrace or, perhaps as likely, an appointment to a mostly ceremonial post.
"The message is that the party and the government have rules and regulations," said Yang Fan, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing who's written extensively about Bo's governance in Chongqing. "People shouldn't just walk into the American consulate without permission, and cadres should abide by the rules."
But Yang also raised another issue: concern in some circles that Bo was growing too close to leftist theorists who are vocal critics of the party's current direction.
Bo was highly controversial in his policies and exceptionally direct for a Chinese official, and his approach was said to have rankled senior mandarins.
Even after the U.S. consulate scandal, "instead of being low key he continued being very high profile. He didn't apologize. His attitude was that he was right and others were wrong. That's why he went down so fast," said Zhang Ming, a professor of political science at Renmin University in Beijing.
Or, as Elizabeth Economy, the director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in an e-mail Friday: "One thing that clearly characterizes China's collective leadership over the past decade is a faceless, colorless style of management. Bo behaved as though he were a rock star."
In Chongqing, Bo launched a combination of "strike black" — a massive police crackdown against corruption and "black society," a term used to mean criminal groups — and "sing red," the revival of Mao-era culture. Many observers say that populist combination worried Beijing.
Still, Bo's status as a "princeling," the son of a former senior Communist leader, and his popularity among many Chinese buttressed his position.
Then early last month Chongqing's former police chief, Wang Lijun, spent the night at a U.S. consulate. It isn't known why Wang was at the consulate, and neither the Americans nor the Chinese have said. Some accounts suggested that Wang had been targeted in an anti-corruption probe. Rumors spread that after not getting the backing he wanted from Bo, Wang sought asylum in exchange for information about the murky doings of Chinese officials.
Again, there's been no definitive version of events. Wang was quickly placed under investigation and the government said this week that he was being removed as vice mayor of Chongqing. The incident was allowed an unusual amount of exposure in China, with Internet posts lingering despite the prowess of the country's online censors. At the time, many wondered whether Bo's rivals were trying to use the situation to knock him down a peg.
"Enemies of various top leaders constantly send 'evidence' to Beijing about different officials," Victor Shih, an expert on Chinese politics at Northwestern University, said in an e-mail exchange Thursday. "Without the embarrassment of an international incident" — Wang's appearance at the consulate — "Bo's enemies would've had a hard time accusing him of anything definitive."
Was that alone enough to topple him?
Zhang said that in addition to the sudden news about Wang in February, the manner in which Bo ran Chongqing caused tensions within the Communist Party.
There have been widespread accusations, which Zhang didn't repeat in an interview Friday, that the "strike black" campaign was used to push out private businesses and replace them with government-owned interests or their allies.
In a way, Zhang said, "the Wang Lijun issue in itself was an inevitable outcome of the Chongqing model."
He explained: "What Bo Xilai did was very much like what Chairman Mao did during the Cultural Revolution era" — when the Mao-sanctioned hunt for counter-revolutionary elements tore society apart — "he had hatchet men to persecute people, and then those hatchet men themselves were later persecuted."
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