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China replaces once-powerful boss of Chongqing city hurt by scandal involving ex-police chief
BEIJING (AP) ' The Communist Party replaced one of China's most powerful and charismatic politicians Thursday following a weeks-long scandal unleashed when one of his trusted aides, a mob-fighting former police chief, fled to a U.S. consulate.
The move to replace Bo Xilai as Chongqing city chief appears to effectively end ' or at least severely hamper ' the public career of one of China's most highly ambitious leaders, whose future had dominated political discussions and speculation in recent weeks amid an investigation into his underling.
Once considered a likely candidate for a seat on the party's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee when new members are selected during this fall's major leadership transition, Bo was replaced as Communist Party secretary in Chongqing by Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang, the official Xinhua News Agency said Thursday.
Bo's removal will likely spur further competition for seats on the Politburo Standing Committee. But it may also put to rest lingering speculation over his fate that had prompted near-obsessive attention from China watchers and overshadowed the just-concluded annual session of the National People's Congress, China's legislature.
Zhang, Bo's replacement in Chongqing, is an economics specialist who served for many years in the vibrant provinces of Zhejiang and Guangdong.
It wasn't clear if Bo had resigned or been forced out and there was no immediate word on whether Bo remained on the party's 25-member Politburo.
Bo's replacement was likely prompted by the scandal surrounding Wang Lijun, his hand-picked chief of police and the enforcer behind a controversial crackdown on Chongqing's gangs and the politicians and policemen who protected them.
The campaign won Bo national attention and praise among his constituents, resulting in 2,000 arrests, 500 prosecutions and 13 executions, including that of the former director of the city's Judicial Bureau over bribery, rape, extortion and gang-related charges.
But it also drew criticism for ignoring due process at a time when the government is at least paying lip service to calls for strengthened legal guarantees, albeit highly selectively. It also appeared to especially target private businesses, fueling a sense of insecurity among China's entrepreneurial class that is spurring large numbers of them to move abroad.
Bo also gained notoriety for a citywide campaign to revive Mao-era communist songs and stories, dredging up memories of the chaotic Cultural Revolution, although Bo claimed he wasn't motivated by politics and only wanted to boost civic pride.
Both campaigns fizzled after initial bursts of positive publicity ' along with Bo's political prospects.
Ties between Bo and Wang appeared to fray amid reports of an investigation into Wang's former subordinates at his former posting in the northeastern city of Tieling. Transferred to a city government post, Wang drove to the U.S. consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu on Feb. 6 in an apparent bid to gain political asylum, staying there overnight before leaving and being taken into custody by investigators from the State Security Ministry in Beijing.
Wang's present location is unknown, although Xinhua said Thursday he has been removed from his remaining post as one of Chongqing's vice mayors.
The announcement on Bo's fate came just after the close of the annual session of the legislature and underscores how party leaders dealt with Bo's troubles behind the scenes while trying to project an image of unity for the public. Bo sparked new rumors by missing a key meeting of the body last week, but sprung back last Friday with a public appearance at which he admitted to mistakes but defended his record in Chongqing.
If Bo is stripped of his Politburo seat, it would be the first time a member of the collective leadership has been removed since 2006 when Shanghai's party secretary, Chen Liangyu, was purged and later sentenced for corruption. Chen's removal was seen as a well-orchestrated move by President Hu Jintao to consolidate his power and remove a rival midway through his 10-year term.
Unusual for party infighting, Bo's undoing unfolded in public. Wang's trip to the U.S. Consulate was first rumored on the Internet and, after the U.S. State Department confirmed the visit, the government was forced to follow suit.
Still amid the rumors of political intrigue, no public explanation has been offered of what led to the rupture between Bo and Wang, a trusted aide for much of the past decade, and what transgressions led to Bo's removal. Premier Wen Jiabao offered the bluntest criticism of Bo and the affair on Wednesday telling reporters that Chongqing leaders "must seriously reflect on the Wang Lijun incident and learn lessons from this incident."
"The public is still in the dark as to what really happened and what has been found in the investigation," said Liu Shanying, expert on public administration from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "What should Mr. Bo reflect on? His hiring decision? If it was only a firing decision, the consequences wouldn't have been like this. But what else did Premier Wen imply? The public is still puzzled."
The scandal has consumed the attention of China's politically minded classes.
China's popular Twitter-like service, Sina Corp.'s Weibo, had blocked searches for Bo's name for much of the past two weeks. After Thursday's announcement, the blocks were seemingly gone, and the news triggered tens of thousands of postings.
For many Chinese, leadership politics is an insider's game far removed from daily life. That also applies in Chongqing, where Bo's signature campaigns to crack down on organized crime and promote communist "red" culture has made him an unusually high-profile party boss.
"The public does not have too much enthusiasm for politics. If some political personnel changes take place, the only thing they do is watch," said Ou Shuyang, a professor of public administration at Southwest University in Chongqing. Ou said policies are unlikely to change much no matter who is at the top.
Bo's career illustrated both the strengths and vulnerabilities of China's "princelings," the offspring of communist China's founders who have benefited financially and career wise from their family connections.
Like many of his well-born contemporaries, Bo suffered internal exile during the chaos and brutality of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, only to later attend elite Peking University and serve in a sting of high-profile positions, including as head of industrial Liaoning province and commerce minister, where he deployed his telegenic personality and love of the soundbite in trade negotiations.