REPORTING FROM BEIJING -- The charismatic Communist Party chief who had led a Maoist revival in the central Chinese city of Chongqing, complete with red flag-waving song contests, was removed from his post Thursday in what is being applauded as a victory for the political reform faction.
Bo Xilai’s ouster comes in the midst of a scandal that has riveted Chinese who are unaccustomed to seeing political intrigues played out in a public. From retirees gossiping over their mah-jongg games to students chatting on the Internet, Bo has been one of the most discussed topics in China since his close ally and deputy mayor, Wang Lijun, sought asylum last month at a nearby U.S. consulate.
A short dispatch by the official New China News Agency on Thursday said that Bo had been replaced after “careful consideration based on current circumstances and the overall situation.” The report did not say what would happen with Bo’s position on the politburo.
The 62-year-old Bo is one of China’s most famous “princelings,” the son of Bo Yibo, one of the Communist Party’s founders. Positively flamboyant next to dull party technocrats such as President Hu Jintao, he had been a contender to step up in the next generation.
His son, Bo Guoguo, who has studied at both Oxford and Harvard, was also frequently in the public eye, sometimes spotted driving a red Ferrari. Political analysts sometimes went so far as to call the family “Kennedyesque.”
The most immediate beneficiaries of Bo’s downfall are reformers such as Wang Yang, the party secretary of manufacturing powerhouse Guangdong province who has pushed for local elections. Wang and Bo were rivals to advance to the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo at the 18th party congress to be held in October.
"People were watching Bo Xilai’s fortunes to see which direction China was going in the future; and right now, the reformers have taken the lead," said Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Renmin University in Beijing.
In Chongqing, where Bo served as party secretary for the past four years, he tried to advance his career with an anti-corruption campaign called da hei -- literally “beat black” -- that saw thousands arrested. At the same time, a chang hong, or “sing red,” campaign had people singing and dancing communist anthems at city parks. Bo had quotations from Mao’s “Little Red Book” sent to Chongqing residents’ cellphones and ordered soap operas removed from television in favor of patriotic songfests.
While Bo’s campaigns won praise in Beijing, critics started fretting about the parallels with the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s reign of political terror that gripped China from 1966 to 1976.
"What scared people was that they saw the same methods used in the Cultural Revolution. There was no respect for rule of law," said Alan Zhang, a lawyer and blogger in Chongqing who was applauding Bo’s ouster Thursday. "What he was doing in Chongqing went against the overall trends of history."
The downfall has been spectacularly public. On Feb. 6, Wang, the deputy mayor and former police official who had been allied with Bo for a decade, fled to the U.S. Consulate in nearby Chengdu. According to reports on Boxun, a U.S.-based Chinese website, Wang brought stacks of documents incriminating Bo in corruption. Reportedly believing that Bo might kill him, Wang remained in the consulate overnight until authorities from Beijing arrived to escort him to the capital.
Wang had been a colorful gangbuster in his own right, sometimes called China’s version of Elliot Ness. But after his removal last month, people who had been arrested by his forces were emboldened to speak up, complaining they had been tortured and terrorized.
Meeting with reporters on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress last week, Bo admitted only to errors of judgment in trusting Wang. "Wang Lijun is being investigated by the relevant central agencies," Bo said. “I feel like I put my trust in the wrong person as a manager.”
But China’s top leadership apparently had lost faith in Bo. On Wednesday, during a news conference at the end of the legislative session, Premier Wen Jiabao issued a rare public rebuke, saying that Chongqing leaders should “seriously self-reflect and draw lessons from the [Wang Lijun] incident.”
To people schooled in Chinese euphemism, that was an unequivocal sign that Bo was in trouble.
Despite all the intrigue, Bo and Wang enjoyed some popularity among working people in Chongqing, who credited them for the city’s economic boom and falling crime rates. Their legacy can be seen in the female traffic police equipped with equestrian helmets and the mobile police kiosks crowned with flashing red and blue lights.
“After Bo took office, our security got so much better,” said Han Xiaonian, a 33-year-old engineer interviewed last month in Chongqing. “You’re not scared to go out at night. You are not scared because there are so many policeman and patrol officers in the street. Wang implemented this.”
-- Barbara Demick
David Pierson contributed to this report.
Photo: Bo Xilai, Communist Party chief for Chongqing, at a plenary session of the National People's Congress in Beijing early this week. He was ousted Thursday. Credit: Andy Wong / Associated Press.