BEIJING >> The governing Communist Party sought to close ranks swiftly Wednesday, hoping to move beyond a mortifying scandal that has exposed a leadership split and threatens to lay bare corruption in the party’s highest ranks.
A day after removing a once-powerful official, Bo Xilai, from the party’s Politburo and naming his wife as the main suspect in the murder of a British businessman, the party’s conduit for official pronouncements, The People’s Daily, published a front-page commentary ordering its members to “consciously unify our thoughts” and rally around the party’s Central Committee and its general secretary, President Hu Jintao.
“The people can see our party’s resolute determination to maintain party discipline and administer the state by rule of law,” the commentary said.
Party censors moved at the same time to scrub the Internet of unapproved references to the affair, blocking all mention of Bo family members and related figures as well as the many nicknames and puns that microbloggers have employed to evade censorship.
Bo, 62, had won widespread popularity and become a rival to the party’s mainstream leaders with an aggressive effort to create an egalitarian society with hints of neo-Maoism in Chongqing, the city-state where he was party secretary. But he also enriched himself and his family in the free-wheeling atmosphere of the economic boom, raising questions of corruption, and he backed harsh police crackdowns.
Bo’s hopes of joining the party’s top leadership collapsed Feb. 6 after Chongqinq’s police chief fled to a U.S. consulate and accused Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, of arranging the murder of the British businessman, Neil Heywood, who was a Bo family acquaintance. The chief, Wang Lijun, whose accusations were backed by a technical police file, also apparently revealed a trove of information about the party’s inner struggles at the highest level to the U.S. diplomats.
After his request for asylum was rejected, Wang left the consulate and was taken away by Chinese security officials; he has not been seen since. He is being investigated over accusations of treason.
Neither Bo nor Gu has been seen since March 15, after Bo was ousted from his Chongqing post. Both are believed to be detained in Beijing. The announcement Tuesday that officials were investigating Bo over a serious disciplinary violation, and Gu in connection with a murder, sent a clear signal; targets of publicly revealed inquiries almost never escape punishment.
Word of the impending charges flooded China’s popular microblogs Tuesday afternoon and evening. Major announcements are sometimes deliberately leaked in advance, but the report also spread after an internal and far more detailed version of the allegations was read to tens of thousands of officials down to the division and county levels, a measure of the extreme effort the party is making to unify its message.
One division-level cadre with a state publishing outfit in Beijing described a buzz of excitement in the conference room Tuesday afternoon.
“We were not very surprised, but we were excited,” said the executive, who declined to be named for fear of repercussions. “It’s a big political event. A lot of us think, well, this is better than having to sing red songs and read red books, like Bo Xilai had people doing in Chongqing.”
The party has not made public the details of its accusations except to say that Heywood had had a falling out over business dealings with Gu and her son, Bo Guagua. The nature of the relationship was unclear, as was the role of Bo Guagua, who is a student at Harvard.
Heywood, 41, was found dead Nov. 15 in a Chongqing hotel room, killed, his death certificate said, by overconsumption of alcohol. Wang, the police chief, told U.S. diplomats that he had had in fact been poisoned.
Gu appears to be the only relative of a Politburo member to have been implicated in a murder case, “much less the murder of a foreigner,” Chen Guangzhong, 82, China’s foremost criminal justice scholar, said in an interview Wednesday.
The maximum sentence for murder in China is execution. On its face, Chen said, the Heywood murder case appears “pretty grave, because it involved a foreigner, and because it has had such a negative impact” politically.
The disclosure of the charges against the Bos was carefully scripted, and apparently timed, to dispense with Bo well ahead of a planned turnover of Communist leaders at the 18th Party Congress this autumn.
Every Chinese media outlet carried the same Xinhua report nearly word for word on Tuesday; it emphasized that the case showed China’s commitment to justice no matter who was involved. On Internet sites, commentators voiced outrage over what the scandal revealed about the dangers of unchecked power.
“Our party does have its baseline,” said Yang Hengjun, a popular public commentator. “Senior officials often target common people, but they cannot do it through murder. After all, if the people with absolute power break through the baseline of murder, no one can stop them.”
The Bo scandal has destroyed efforts to portray the leadership changes as a symbol of Communist Party unity and the maturity of China’s one-party political system.
“This is very painful for the party,” said Zheng Yongnian, a specialist on Chinese politics at the East Asia Institute of the National University of Singapore. “It’s very embarrassing to have such a party leader and his wife now involved in a murder case. With this decision, the picture is clear; they can go ahead” with plans for the transition.