The biggest political scandal to rock the secretive Communist Party of China (CPC) in years took another twist late on Tuesday night when top CPC leader Bo Xilai was stripped of his membership of the powerful politburo of the Central Committee.
It was a double-blow for Bo: his wife Bogu Kailai was named and detained as a suspect in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. Heywood was found dead in a Chongqing hotel room in November. In March, Bo was suspended as the party chief of Chongqing, a city in southwest China.
The rapid developments have once again brought the focus on the CPC’s attempt to smoothly complete the once-in-a decade leadership change that comes up later this year. Bo till recently was a contender for a top post among the new leaders who would take over; now, his chances couldn’t have been more dim.
If the CPC is jittery about the lead up to the change, it’s showing -- in the crackdown on social networking and micro-blogging sites following coup rumours and in several articles and opinion pieces in the government-controlled media.
For example, a commentary in The PLA Daily - Chinese People's Liberation Army newspaper – on Tuesday indicated the army brass might be worried about differences within the party while reminding its troops of the “party's absolute leadership” over the army. It emphasised the need to maintain the “supreme political discipline of the army” and said president Hu Jintao's orders must be obeyed to the letter.
A commentary on Wednesday in CPC mouthpiece, People’s Daily, attempted to describe the developments as good for the country. “This fully displays the respect for fact and the rule of law, and is entirely consistent with the Party's basic requirement of strict discipline on its members and the Party's governing philosophy of running state affairs according to law,” it said, adding: “This also showcases the Party's determination to keep its purity, and the clear stand of the Party and government to safeguard Party discipline and the laws of the state. This will gain support from all members of the Party and the public.”
The article added: “…the death of Heywood is a severe criminal case that involves families and close staff of a leader of the Party and the State. What Bo has done has seriously violated Party discipline, brought loss to the Party and the country, and tarnished the image of the Party and the country.”
A spokesperson at the British embassy said the decision of the Chinese government to reopen the Heywood case was “welcome.” “We will wait for the conclusion of the case. Authorities are in close contact with (Heywood’s) family,’’ a spokesperson said.
For Bo and family, it’s mostly likely further downhill from here. The CPC’s Central Commission for Discipline will now investigate the charges of “serious discipline violations” against Bo, the Party said in a statement splashed across all state-run newspapers and television channels on Wednesday. The charges against his wife were spelt out: “…the existing evidence indicated that Heywood died of homicide, of which Bogu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun, an orderly at Bo's home, are highly suspected. Bogu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun have been transferred to judicial authorities on suspected crime of intentional homicide,” the statement said.
The statement added that both Bo’s wife and son were in good terms with Heywood.
“However, they had conflict over economic interests, which had been intensified,” it said.
Initially, alcohol poisoning was given as the cause of Heywood’s death and his body was cremated without an autopsy.
The case took curious turn when UK recently asked China to reinvestigate the case to find out if there was any foul play behind Heywood’s death. Subsequently, Chinese authorities set up a new team to reinvestigate the murder.
It has emerged that former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun – who was once Bo’s confidante – probably suspected the involvement of someone close to Bo to be behind Heywood’s death. But Bo removed him as police chief, which finally led Wang, apparently fearing for his safety, to the US Consulate in Chengdu. Wang was eased out of the Consulate and since then not being seen publicly.