AP -- China's Communist Party sidelined a powerful, charismatic politician Thursday following a messy scandal that saw a trusted aide flee to a U.S. consulate and that threatened to cast a shadow over a looming leadership transition.
Bo Xilai's removal as party chief of the huge inland city of Chongqing appears to end the upward trajectory of a political celebrity who months ago seemed headed for the uppermost ranks of power.
Tall and telegenic, Bo exuded confidence and courted the media, rare traits among the bland, low-key Chinese leadership. His signature policies in Chongqing – an anti-mafia crusade and promotion of communist culture – drew a national following but made him a polarizing figure among his peers.
In terse statements carried by state media, the leadership said that Bo Xilai was being replaced in Chongqing by a vice premier. The reports did not explicitly address the scandal nor say if Bo would be ousted from his seat on the decision-making Politburo.
Bo's sidelining creates a mixed picture for the transfer of power later this year when President Hu Jintao and other leaders retire to make way for younger leaders, always a time of divisive infighting. Party power-brokers no longer need to accomodate the ambitious Bo, though the eventual lineup of the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of power, remains unsettled.
"A very big personality, someone who had a very strong personality, is no longer going to be engaged in trying to make sure he gets a seat on the Politburo," said David Zweig, a China watcher at Hong Kong University of Science And Technology.
That "probably will make politics more relaxed over the next six months."
In a sign of the delicate factional balancing in China's leadership, Bo was replaced in Chongqing by Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang, a North Korean-trained economist who has run two economically vibrant provinces. Both men share a common political patron.
The change comes just weeks after longtime Bo confidante and Chongqing vice mayor Wang Lijun – currently under an unspecified investigation – fled overnight to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, possibly to seek political asylum, before leaving the building.
Wang, as police chief, headed the gangland crackdown that made both men national figures, and his flight to a foreign consulate represented a potential breach of sensitive internal information, violating party discipline and tainting Bo.
The scandal has consumed the attention of China's politically minded classes as did the latest twist. 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.
Still, amid the rumors of political intrigue, no public explanation has been offered about what set off the scandal or 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."
In announcing Bo's replacement, the leadership's top official in charge of personnel told Chongqing party members that it was done "after discreet consideration and based on current circumstances and the overall situation."
Wang's whereabouts since his consulate visit aren't known. A separate Xinhua News Agency report said Thursday that he has been removed from his last remaining post as Chongqing vice mayor.
Bo's removal 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.
Even before the scandal, Bo's star seemed to be dimming. His anti-gang crackdown – so touted by media in 2009 and 2010 for its mass arrests, among them the city's judicial bureau chief – has been criticized for ignoring due process and for targeting private businessmen, coercing them to give deals over to politically connected companies.
The "red culture" campaign, which featured mass sing-alongs of communist anthems, has also drawn criticisms, with some seeing them as a reminder of the radical mass mobilization campaigns that created political chaos and ruined the economy in the 1960s and 1970s.