China’s powerful regional Communist Party chief in southern Chongqing, who was angling for a seat on the collective dictatorship that rules China, was ousted on Thursday, state-run media reported.
U.S. officials and outside China watchers said the ouster of Bo Xilai, who was behind a Cultural Revolution-style revival of Maoism, signals high-level divisions within the Party hierarchy months before a major leadership change.
A U.S. official who specializes in China affairs said Bo’s campaign in Chongqing to return to Mao-era Communist fanaticism through grassroots nationalist-Communist programs raised hackles in the Chinese capital.
"This violates a whole set of cardinal principles of the current Chinese Communist Party collective dictatorship, which demands its local Party chiefs do not make any waves by starting any political initiative on your own," the official said.
Bo’s self-promotion and political initiatives likely upset the ruling Politburo, which demands that it—not local chiefs—decides important issues.
Bo upset the powers in Beijing by arousing populism that cautious leaders believe could shake the foundations of Communist rule, as happened during the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s when Mao Zedong unleashed the Red Guard on the party and the country’s institutions.
Without mentioning any details for the ousters, Xinhua reported from Chongqing that Zhang Dejiang was appointed Party chief of Chongqing, replacing Bo based on a "decision of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee" on Thursday.
Bo was stripped of his post, as well as his membership on the standing committee and his membership on the CPC Chongqing municipal committee.
The events of the last several weeks represent high political drama for the Communist regime in Beijing. Leadership struggles rarely are played out so publicly.
U.S. intelligence analysts have been closely watching the senior Chinese leadership since Feb. 6, when one of Bo’s former deputies, former Public Security chief Wang Lijun, fled Chongqing and sought to defect at the U.S. Consulate in neighboring Chengdu.
The White House turned Wang away over concerns that granting asylum would upset the visit to the United States by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping. Rather than return Wang to security forces loyal to Bo, he was given to a senior official of Beijing’s Ministry of State Security, highlighting what U.S. officials said was a major power struggle between Bo and Beijing.
A defense official said the mishandling of the Wang defection sent the wrong message to Chinese leaders because turning him away condoned Bo’s efforts to seize the former poice chief by surrounding the consulate with security agents and police vehicles.
"Beijing’s leaders may now think the U.S. government can be intimidated in a crisis by a few police cars," the official said.
Chinese blogs in recent days were filled with postings, likely from officials seeking to spin public debate, by saying the failure to defend Wang is a sign of U.S. decline.
By contrast, in 1989, President George W. Bush directly invited Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi to seek shelter in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where he stayed for 18 months before being allowed to leave the country.
Bo’s dismissal came a day after Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao issued an unusual public rebuke of "Chongqing authorities," who were told to "seriously" reflect and learn from the Wang incident.
Bo dispatched armored personnel carriers to the consulate in Chengdu upon learning of Wang’s defection there. But his forces were unable to prevent Wang from traveling to Beijing, which triggered speculation that his chances for remaining in power had dimmed.
Bo then appeared on Chinese state television Feb. 21 leading analysts to suspect he had weathered the purge. But, during the recent Communist Party meeting in Beijing, state media reported that he was missing from one of the sessions. That was the first sign his fortune was declining.
The U.S. official said the replacement of Bo was "a case of a self-aggrandizing, charismatic leftist Communist boss versus the boring, run-of-the-mill CCP collective dictatorship. In the end, the collective dictatorship won."
Stephen Yates, a China affairs specialist who worked for Vice President Dick Cheney during the George W. Bush administration, said the dramatic events leading up to Bo’s ouster shows that the current Communist system bears no resemblance to modern, transparent, accountable forms of government that guide China’s neighbors and regional competitors.
"Chinese leaders behave as if the foundations of their current system and their positions are tenuous," Yates told the Free Beacon. "Bo was playing with ideological fire in a field of dry tinder."
"There is nothing more threatening to the future of Communist Party rule in China than a popular movement that reminds people of past ideals the national leadership isn't living up to," Yates said.
Dissident groups such as the Falun Gong spiritual movement also do this by reminding others that the Communist Party is not Chinese and does not define China.
Taiwan also undermines party rule in China by showing that Chinese culture and modern democracy are compatible, Yates said.
Regarding Party factionalism, Yates said, "What's going on in Chinese politics is more akin to a mafia state struggling to hold on in the face of growing popular dissatisfaction and less fear that any challenge to the system is futile."
"They had to sack Bo to remind all willing to listen that you either stand with the group or the group stands on you," Yates said.
Said a U.S. official familiar with intelligence assessments: "Bo’s ouster probably has more to do with his personal political problems, and isn’t symbolic of a wider split in party ranks."
John Tkacik, a former State Department China specialist, said purges such as that of Bo usually reflect high-level factionalism, but more than likely are based on corruption.
He said another example was the case of former Beijing Party boss Chen Xitong, who was a major rival to Chinese leader Jiang Zemin and who was removed from power in 1995 ostensibly for real estate corruption. Chen was replaced with a Jiang protégé.
"China's factions tend to be personality-centric and involve extended networks of personal relationships, not really ideology-centered as it was in the Cultural Revolution," Tkacik told the Free Beacon. "It's true that the China Youth League faction tends to focus more on domestic social policy, while the Shanghai faction focuses on China's national security and military and is grounded in a neo-nationalism. But that's not to say the factions disagree on the doctrine, only that they stress different interests."
Tkacik said it is not easy to tell the real reasons behind Bo’s firing. But one possible explanation is that Bo may have overdramatized his anti-corruption and Red Revival campaigns.
The high-profile public campaigns may have been intended to "deflect attention from his personal misbehavior rather than being a sincere commitment to old-time-religion style Communist orthodoxy," he said.
Tkacik said Bo's replacement, Zhang Dejiang, is a well-known leftist who was educated at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang with a degree in economics. Zhang is a stalwart of the Shanghai Faction, not the more reformist China Youth League faction that is generally identified with lame-duck Party General Secretary Hu Jintao, he said.
"So this either was not a result of inter-factional frictions within the Party, or the Youth League faction was unsuccessful," Tkacik said, stressing that he believes the entire affair does not signal any meaningful change in Chinese leadership doctrine or political alignments.
An Obama administration official said, "The whole incident has served as a wake up call for China experts around the world who have long predicted an end to all power struggles in Beijing."
Human rights groups have been silent on the Obama administration’s decision to turn away a senior Communist defector.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee is investigating the Wang Lijun case and has asked for documents related to the affair. A committee spokesman said so far the State Department has failed to comply with the committee’s requests.
The U.S. official said the case of Bo versus Beijing was similar to the situation in Moscow prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
"But the tragedy for China is that Bo is no Yeltsin, and there is no Gorbachev within the collective dictatorship," the official said. "In the Soviet case, Yeltsin won over Gorbachev, who willingly conceded defeat."