In a development that could have been ripped from the pages of an international espionage thriller, Bo Xilai, once one of China’s most powerful leaders, was stripped of his position near the top of the ruling Communist Party and his wife was arrested as a suspect in the murder of a British businessman.
Chinese state media announced late Tuesday that Mr. Bo was suspended from the party’s 25-member Politburo because of suspected “serious discipline violations.” The Xinhua News Agency said Mr. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, had been “transferred to judicial authorities” investigating the “international homicide” of Neil Heywood, a British businessman who died in China in November.
The former party secretary of the Chinese mega-municipality of Chongqing and once China’s minister of commerce, Mr. Bo was a flamboyant and populist politician who had, until recently, been touted as likely to join the top echelons of China’s political ranks in the nine-member Standing Committee. He gained international prominence with his crackdown on corruption and organized crime in Chongqing and was wooed by Canadian business leaders and politicians betting on his rising influence within the Communist Party.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Mr. Bo in Chongqing in February following in the footsteps of Montreal’s powerful Desmarais family and the Canada China Business Council which had cultivated a relationship with Mr. Bo for more than a decade. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien once called Mr. Bo an “old friend.”
Now the rising political star has been purged in China’s most high-profile political scandal in 20 years, an episode that has rocked the ruling regime and exposed usually furtive party infighting to domestic and international scrutiny.
“It is a shock to the system and damaging to the prestige of the Party. But it is not a fatal blow, they will recover,” said Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta and a former Canadian diplomat who has met Mr. Bo.
The scandal comes at a particularly politically sensitive moment for China. Later this year, the country will undergo a once-in-a-decade transition of power as president Hu Jintao steps aside and the Standing Committee is reshaped with new members. Mr. Bo, known for promoting Mao-era songs and slogans in Chongqing, had openly campaigned for a spot on the Standing Committee. At the same time, he often highlighted the growing wealth gap between rich and poor in China and criticized government policies including the gradual move toward a more market-based economy promoted by President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao.
“I don’t think it puts into jeopardy the fundamental transition that is going to happen later this year. [Mr. Bo]was not quite at the apex, he was one tier down, so it is manageable. But it is still a great embarrassment and they’ll want to put it behind them as quickly as possible. Yet they won’t be able to because of the size of his reputation and the seriousness of the charges against his wife,” Mr. Houlden said.
Mr. Bo was removed from his post as Chongqing party boss in March. That followed a bizarre incident in February when Wang Lijun, the top police official in Chongqing and Mr. Bo’s right-hand man, sought refuge at the American consulate in Chengdu.
During his stay, Mr. Wang reportedly told American officials that Mr. Heywood, whose death had previously been ruled a result of alcohol poisoning, had been murdered. Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, reported that Mr. Heywood had been on “good terms” with Mr. Bo’s wife and his son until there was a “financial dispute.”
Xinhua said Tuesday that Ms. Gu and an “orderly” at the Bo's home named Zhang Xiaojun are now “highly suspected” in the murder case.
The downfall of Mr. Bo is sure to heighten the focus on the dominant group in China’s rising political class known as “princelings” whose fathers were also Party officials. Mr. Bo’s father, Bo Yibo, was a key figure in the 1949 Communist Revolution.
“The princelings are under greater scrutiny now,” said Pitman Potter, a law professor at the University of British Columbia and a senior fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. “That challenges a whole host of political leadership, legitimacy and structural issues in terms of the historical and political culture of the leadership in China. That’s going to make for some unsettling conversations.”
Prof. Potter said the Bo scandal is also likely to intensify the debate in China between the need for more market-based economic policy and reforms aimed at improving the greater public good and creating a more equitable distribution of wealth.