Bo Xilai Replaced as Chongqing Party Chief (Update)

Bo Xilai has been stripped of his official positions in Chongqing, according to a single-sentence announcement from Xinhua [zh]: “In recent days, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party has decided that Comrade Zhang Dejiang is to serve as CPC Chongqing Municipal Committee member, standing committee member and secretary; Comrade Bo Xilai will no longer hold these positions.”

[Xinhua later issued a slightly lengthier English version of the announcement.]

Bo’s hardline “Chongqing Model” of government was seen as a possible future direction for the country as a whole, with Wang Yang’s more progressive “Happy Guangdong” approach its main rival. But the princeling’s seemingly assured rise was cut short after deputy mayor Wang Lijun—a key figure in his signature ‘Strike Black’ campaign against organised crime—fled to the US consulate in Chengdu before surrendering to central authorities in February. (Xinhua also confirmed today that Wang is to be replaced as deputy mayor [zh] by Qinghai vice-governor and public security head He Ting.) After weeks of uncertainty, today’s announcement marks the likely end of Bo’s political career. From Reuters:

Bo’s abrupt removal implied that while he may be kept on in some position until the party succession later this year, his chances of promotion were finished, said Chen Ziming, an independent scholar in Beijing who follows party politics.

“Now it looks like Wen Jiabao’s comments yesterday represented the leadership’s collective view that Bo needed to go,” said Chen. “This will affect the leadership politics for the 18th Congress, because this opens up new uncertainties about who is in contention.”

The ominous comments in question came during Wen’s final press conference as Premier, when he said that Chongqing’s leaders should “reflect on and learn from” the Wang Lijun affair. He later added that “without successful political structural reform … such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again,” a veiled attack on the revival of Maoist songs and other “Red culture” in Bo’s Chongqing.

It remains unclear how far the damage from Bo Xilai’s fall will spread, and to what extent his removal signals a rejection of his politics. From The Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Bo’s political demise is damaging for other senior party figures who back him, as well as officials and academics who support the development model he championed, hinging on strong state intervention in the economy and society ….

Analysts said [Wen’s] wording—broadcast unedited on state television—had likely been approved by the Standing Committee, including Vice President Xi Jinping, expected to take over as party chief in the fall, as the issue was so sensitive.

“This was not just directed at Bo, but at whoever is behind Bo,” said Huang Jing, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore, before Thursday’s announcement.

The most immediate collateral damage seems to have been to Chongqing stocks. From China Real Time:

Chongqing Brewery Co. was off nearly 6% at 34.46 yuan a share early on Thursday, while Chongqing Changan Automobile Co. was down 1.5% at 4.61 yuan. Other Chongqing stocks were also on the defensive.

Mr. Bo … has spent lavishly on infrastructure so some investors may have seen his departure as bad news for public spending in the big southwestern city.

China Real Time also quickly put together a panel of experts – including The Brookings Institutions’ Cheng Li, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Susan Shirk, and Portland State University’s Bruce Gilley – to get their take on the developments.

Update (by Scott Greene): Shanghaiist reports that netizens have gone crazy in response to the news of Bo’s sacking, with the topic currently number 1 on Sina Weibo, and has published some of the online reaction:

@刘海军的围脖: Notice the words “Before today” (the date given in Xinhua’s reporting), it means the decision was already made before the press conference yesterday, Premier Wen was only just shooting the breeze. (注意“日前”二字,说明在昨天的记者会之前就决定了,温总只是吹吹风而已)

@忆通李劲松律师: This is my personal understanding and attitude: 1. Even though Chongqing Bo has been under investigation, his three years of contribution cannot be overlooked! 2. The local governments and Public Security Department should fight against corruption, crony capitalism and dark forces! 3. The local governments and Public Security Department should take citizens’ opinion into account, punish severely corrupted officials in Public Security Department like Wen Qiang, the former deputy director of Public Security Bureau who colluded with other evil officials! (我个人的立场或说态度: 1.重庆薄王虽已出事被查, 但薄王三年来在重庆所作所为绝非一无是处!__2.各地政府和公安机关仍须依法反贪腐权贵资本打黑恶流氓势力!_3.各地政府和公安机关必须正视民心加强依法反贪腐打黑恶力度,严惩各地公安机关内类似原重庆市公安局副局长文强的官恶勾结腐败!)

@心有灵犀2011: In Chinese history, no one who challenged central authority ended up well. (从中国历史上看,凡是挑战中央集权的都没有好下场)

@qiaoqiaolang: When Mao Zedong left, Socialism kept developing, when Deng Xiaoping left, Reform and Opening up continued to deepen. With Bo Xilai gone, the future of Chongqing is still bright! (毛泽东去了,社会主义继续发展,邓小平去了,改革开放继续深化,薄督走了,重庆未来仍然一片光明!)

Tea Leaf Nation notes the rising and falling number of tweets returned by searches for “Bo Xilai” on Chinese microblogs, an indication that the Great Firewall is hard at work, and highlights the themes emerging from the Weibo traffic:

Some netizens wondered whether organized crime will make a comeback since Bo is known for his law and order campaigns. As @余丰慧 wrote, “Bo is out, and the happiest are the mobsters; they will be drinking and partying all night in celebration!”

@橙荼子 tweets, “I have very mixed feelings about Bo personally…he is the party boss that put Chongqing on the map and made the biggest change here. As a Chongqing’er, I am a bit sad.”

Indeed, many online comments evince an “us versus them” mentality, which may help explain why Bo was viewed as such a divisive figure which China’s central leadership ultimately chose to boot out. @最初的Triangle wrote, “I like you!” and @zht828 defended him, writing, “At least Bo Xilai was a clear-cut character, one who dared to speak and dared to do things, one who dared to undertake [responsibility].”

Meanwhile, the Economist reflects on Bo’s rise, his fall, and what the future holds for him and the elites of the Chinese Communist Party:

Mr Bo’s rather transparent attempts to harness popular support for his own advancement within the Party marked a sharp departure from the way top-level politics are handled in China. This too may have played a role in his downfall.

Readers of tea leaves will now be looking closely to see what becomes of Mr Bo: whether he is to be investigated, disciplined or prosecuted. The terse announcement of his dismissal provided few details, but did refer to him as “Comrade”, a sign that he has not been booted from the Party—or at least not yet.

It remains unclear also what this shake-up means for the delicate succession plans that have been laid for the rest of the country’s leadership. Mr Bo’s removal is one clear indication that the process is not entirely without turbulence. Should he be prosecuted, it would mark yet another sharp departure from tradition. Figures with family backgrounds like Mr Bo’s tend not to be treated that way; it would be the sign of a great rift at the highest level.

The China Media Project recaps today’s coverage of Bo in the Chinese media, where the limited information available from official sources has run at the top of most major news portals:

It remains to be seen, of course, whether mainstream China media will attempt deeper coverage of Bo Xilai and the Wang Lijun incident — or for that matter, the Cultural Revolution, given Wen Jiabao’s remarks yesterday.

Until then, the discussion will have to happen on Chinese social media, where for most of the day “Bo Xilai” has been one of the top-trending topics.

It bears pointing out as well — something Hu Shuli noted in her important editorial last night — that Bo Xilai fortunes (out in the wash today) are closely linked to Wen Jiabao’s criticisms yesterday concerning the Party’s legacy and the Cultural Revolution.

As everyone is pouncing on this story as an illustration of internal Party struggles over the future and the 18th Party Congress, let’s not forget that it is also about the past. Bo Xilai has symbolized nostalgia over the Maoist era, and many on China’s left have been supportive of this.

See also a photoseries published today by The Wall Street Journal titled “Bo Xilai Over the Years.”