CHENGDU, China — In a stunning twist to one of China's biggest scandals in decades, state media confirmed Tuesday that Bo Xilai, once seen as a rising political star, has been suspended from his seat on the nation's politburo and his wife is a suspect in the killing of a British businessman.
The state-owned news agency Xinhua said that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, and a household staff member are "highly suspected" of involvement in the killing of Neil Heywood, who was found dead in the sprawling city of Chongqing last November. The two have been "transferred to judicial authorities on suspected crime of intentional homicide," Xinhua reported.
The chain of events, which has been unusually public in a nation known for keeping a tight lid on political intrigue, is now certain to have ended Bo's public career. Until recently, Bo was widely considered a leading candidate for one of nine slots on the politburo standing committee, the core of power in the world's second-largest economy.
Xinhua's report confirmed at least some of the speculation that had been swirling around Bo since his removal March 15 from the position of Chongqing's Chinese Communist Party secretary.
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That seemingly abrupt move came after Chongqing's former police chief, a man named Wang Lijun, made an unsanctioned trip to the U.S. consulate here on Feb. 6 and reportedly sought asylum.
There have been allegations that Wang and Bo fell out after Wang aired the possibility that Heywood had been poisoned in a case that might involve Bo's wife.
The details of Heywood's death aren't publicly known and the exact nature of Heywood's relationship with the Bo family remains vague. He's thought to have met the Bo family when Bo was the mayor of the city of Dalian, a post he held from 1993 to 2000, and acted as a go-between on business deals in the following years.
When Heywood turned up dead in Chongqing last year, he was recorded as having died of natural causes. Accounts varied between heart attack and overconsumption of alcohol.
Xinhua noted Tuesday that Bo's wife, who's a lawyer, and son "were on good terms with Heywood. However, they had conflict over economic interests, which had been intensified."
A "reinvestigation" of the case found that "existing evidence indicated that Heywood died of homicide," Xinhua said.
Bo's populist leadership style in the southwestern city of Chongqing was said to have rankled some senior leadership in Beijing and caused deep anxiety about his ascent toward the politburo standing committee. Bo encouraged large-scale celebration of Mao Zedong-era "red culture" along with a harsh crackdown on alleged corruption and mafia activity.
In a political culture that encourages uniformity, Bo stood out as being able to work a crowd, a skill that his backers applauded but his critics pointed to as demagoguery.
In addition to being suspended from the 25-person politburo, Bo has been removed from the Communist Party's larger central committee. The party's central commission for discipline inspection is filing a case against Bo for investigation, Xinhua said Tuesday, a sign that his punishment could be more severe than loss of title.
The specific charges being weighed against Bo, 62, haven't been detailed.
For now, Xinhua said, "Comrade Bo Xilai is suspected of being involved in serious discipline violations."
The son of a late Chinese Communist Party luminary, Bo had long been regarded as untouchable. One measure of the shock of his fall from grace: Online rumors last month of a coup in Beijing, by all accounts without any grounding in fact, spread in the vacuum of information about what was happening after he was sacked from the Chongqing job.
Xinhua carried the news of Bo's ouster from the politburo and the charges against his wife in separate items that were posted to its English-language website five minutes apart just after 11 p.m. Tuesday.
At almost 1 a.m. Wednesday, Xinhua issued another online piece that said People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, would carry a commentary on the case: "Firmly support correct decision of CPC Central Committee," the headline read.
Xinhua paraphrased the forthcoming People's Daily piece as saying that the investigation of Bo and his wife "showcases the party's determination to keep its purity, and the clear stand of the party and government to safeguard party discipline and the laws of the state."
However, no further light was shed on the evidence for either case.
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