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China carefully managing public reaction to Bo Xilai's downfall

BEIJING — China's Communist Party sought Wednesday to manage a high-stakes balance between announcing the removal of a once-rising political star from his position and the investigation of his wife in a homicide case with the risk of that news creating public unease.

The official newspaper People's Daily carried a strip of stories and commentary on its front page Wednesday explaining that "serious discipline violations" on Bo's part had necessitated his suspension a day earlier from the 25-seat politburo. Newscasts on radio and TV stations repeated that message.

The allegations about his wife's involvement in the "intentional homicide" of a British businessman last year, Chinese media asserted, came only after careful investigation.

In addition to propaganda messages transmitted through traditional outlets, there appeared to be a campaign to squeeze people's ability to search and comment about the situation on popular websites. The push and pull of those approaches underlined the sensitivity of purging, or something close to it, the controversial son of a Communist Party icon from the ranks of power while also suggesting that his wife could end up behind bars.

An editorial in People's Daily reminded people of the need to keep their thinking in line with the central government's positions, and urged them to "closely unite" with the nation's senior officials, led by party Secretary and President Hu Jintao.

The announcement of Bo's downfall late Tuesday via the state news wire Xinhua was the latest episode in a scandal that's been uncommonly public in a nation famous for its ability to suppress information.

Until recently, Bo was considered a likely candidate for a spot on the nation's ruling politburo standing committee, which is expected to change seven of its nine members later this year.

Bo was removed from his post as the party secretary of the sprawling city of Chongqing last month after his former police chief, Wang Lijun, made an unsanctioned trip to a U.S. consulate, possibly seeking asylum. There were reports that a confrontation with Bo over an investigation into the death of Neil Heywood, a Briton who was found dead last November in Chongqing, sparked Wang's flight to the American diplomatic outpost in the city of Chengdu.

While Heywood's death initially was ruled the result of natural causes, Wang, according to accounts not yet publicly verified, reportedly told Bo he thought the man may have been poisoned and the case could include Bo's family.

A public affairs representative at the Chengdu consulate Wednesday morning declined a McClatchy journalist's request to discuss the details of Wang's visit.

The government said Tuesday night that not only was Heywood in fact killed, but also that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, and a household employee were "highly suspected" of being involved.

While there hasn't been a widespread public outcry about Bo's downfall, some users of the nation's Twitter-like micro-blogs alternately voiced irritation and despair Wednesday over the lack of an explanation of what precisely he and his wife had done. Online searches for Bo by name were blocked, though users found a variety of word-game approaches to circumvent those restrictions.

One person in the coastal province of Zhejiang lamented in a posting that, "people haven't figured out what really happened, but it's already been strongly supported." Another, in Guangdong province, said with seeming sarcasm that while little is known about the inner workings of the Bo saga, maintaining stability is a "top priority."

While serving as the party secretary in the southwestern city of Chongqing, Bo generated both fame and scorn for his brash, populist leadership style. He encouraged celebrations of Mao Zedong-era culture, and he launched a massive crackdown on people and groups identified as involved with organized crime or corruption. That combination fueled concerns in some quarters, apparently including senior leadership in Beijing, that Bo was getting out of control.

The Global Times, a tabloid seen as having nationalist leanings, ran an opinion piece Wednesday asserting that, "The authority of the CPC" — the Communist Party — "Central Committee is ensured by the smooth development of the country and resolute investigation of rule-breaking cases. This time, authority has shone through again."

(Researcher Joyce Zhang contributed to this report.)


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