BEIJING (AP) — A flamboyant and telegenic politician who until recently seemed destined for the top ranks of China’s leadership was stripped of his most powerful posts on Tuesday and his wife named in the murder of a British businessman as Chinese leaders moved to stem a scandal that has exposed divisive infighting.
The announcement that Bo Xilai was being suspended from the Communist Party’s Politburo and Central Committee and that his wife was a suspect in a homicide investigation put an end to a colorful political career. Media-savvy with a populist flair, Bo gained a nationwide following for busting organized crime and for reviving communist culture while running the inland mega-city of Chongqing.
His publicity-seeking ways angered some in the top leadership, however. In recent weeks, allegations of Bo’s and his family’s misdeeds leaked into public view, threatening to complicate preparations by the leadership for a delicate, once-a-decade transition to younger leaders at a congress later this year.
“This means the political career of Bo Xilai is over,” said Cheng Li, a Chinese politics expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The party wants to really resolve the Bo Xilai crisis in a relatively short period of time. They want to make sure that the attention for the 18th party congress will not suffer too much from the Bo Xilai episode.”
Bo’s patrons included retired party elders who retain influence over senior appointments, and among his vocal supporters were influential generals and party members, scholars and ordinary Chinese who identify themselves as leftists. His removal raises questions about whether Chinese leaders will have to make concessions to them to achieve the political balance that has restrained factional fighting in recent decades.
“A political succession that seemed completely predictable has been upended,” said June Teufel Dreyer, a China politics expert at University of Miami. “We may be in for more surprises.”
An editorial to run Wednesday in the party’s People’s Daily newspaper appealed for unity and said the investigation into Bo’s violations would show the leadership’s “solid resolve in safeguarding party discipline and the rule of law.”
Tuesday’s announcement, carried by state media, provided details of what has been a lurid and embarrassing scandal for the leadership.
Bo’s removal from top government posts came on suspicion of involvement in unspecified but “serious discipline violations,” the Central Committee said, and his case was handed over to internal party investigators.
His wife, Gu Kailai, and an orderly at their home were being investigated for intentional homicide in the death of Briton Neil Heywood, the Xinhua News Agency said. Heywood’s death in November in Chongqing was initially blamed on excessive drinking, something his friends have said he was not known to do.
Tuesday’s brief reports sketch out and corroborate accounts that have circulated among politically connected Chinese ever since Bo’s high-flying career began unraveling in February after a trusted aide fled temporarily to the U.S.
Consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu.
The aide, Wang Lijun, had suspicions that Bo’s family was involved in Heywood’s death, people familiar with the case said. After Bo sought to squelch an investigation, Wang sought asylum in the consulate and brought with him documents, the people said.
The Xinhua report confirmed that while at the consulate, Wang alleged that Heywood had been murdered. The allegations prompted the British government to ask for a new inquiry and, Xinhua said, prompted Chinese authorities to reopen an investigation.
The Xinhua account said that Gu and the couple’s son, Bo Guagua, had been on good terms with Heywood but that they had a conflict over unspecified “economic interests” that worsened. The investigators found that Heywood’s death was likely a homicide and that Gu and the family orderly, Zhang Xiaojun, are suspects, Xinhua said.
British media previously reported that Heywood’s family and friends appeared to dismiss foul play when he died in November. Instead the family believed he had died of a heart attack.
While the British government had not initially sought an investigation, it welcomed Tuesday’s announcement of a new probe.
“We now look forward to seeing those investigations take place and hearing the outcome of those investigations,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said. “I don’t want to prejudice their conduct in any way.”
While Bo officially is suspended and still a party member, the same tactic was used in 2006 against Shanghai’s party secretary, Chen Liangyu, who was eventually sentenced to 18 years in prison for bribery, abuse of power and other acts of corruption.
The Xinhua report about Heywood’s death referred to Bo as “comrade,” a term reserved for party members. But it identified his wife as “Bogu Kailai,” an unexplained combining of their last names.
Even before Wang’s flight to the consulate, Bo’s standing had been under fire. His signature campaigns — a crackdown on organized crime and a revival of Mao Zedong-era communist songs and stories — gained him a national following but also earned him critics.
The gang busting ran roughshod over civil liberties, with legal scholars and some businessmen victims accusing authorities of torture and other tactics to steer deals toward people in Bo’s favor.
Meanwhile, the Mao culture campaign dredged up memories of the chaotic, radical Cultural Revolution in which many Chinese were persecuted for being insufficiently loyal.
In promising a thorough investigation into Bo, the People’s Daily editorial said: “There is no privileged citizen before the law. The Party does not tolerate any special member who is above the law. No one can interfere with law enforcement and anyone who violates the law could not be at large.”
Associated Press reporters Gillian Wong in Beijing and Sylvia Hui in London contributed to this report.