BEIJING — China’s ruling Communist Party expelled the once-powerful political leader Bo Xilai and charged him Friday with a long list of moral and criminal wrongdoings, even as it set a date for a once-in-a-decade transition to new leaders.
The moves represent a desire by China’s one-party government to forcefully put an end to China’s biggest political scandal in years amid an era in which Internet and social media have given greater voice to public dissent and underscored the challenges to political stability.
The double-barreled announcements also signaled that competing factions within the party may have settled their biggest lingering questions as they approach a political changing of the guar d during the party congress that is now slated to begin on Nov. 8, two days after the U.S. presidential election.
The timing of the announcement, on the eve of an eight-day holiday, suggests how sensitive Chinese leaders considered the news, at a time of intensive wrangling over who should sit on the party’s next ruling council and over how the party should handle Bo, who commanded a fervent following among Communist revivalists before his spectacular downfall.
Vice President Xi Jinping, whose disappearance from public view for two weeks this month has still not been fully explained, remains poised to take over China’s top post. But there have been signs of continued competition over other positions on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, which will shape China’s policies at a time of sharpened tension with the United States over economic and military matters.
Among the forces looming largest in the jockeying are former president Jiang Zemin and outgoing President Hu Jintao, who are both eager to protect their legacy and power base within a system that amounts to collective leadership, party insiders say.
Bo himself had been seen as a candidate for the ruling council, but he has disappeared from view since being ousted in March as the party leader in the city of Chongqing, amid allegations of wrongdoing interwoven by a murder mystery entangling his wife, Gu Kailai, and an aide.
The severity and breadth of Friday’s accusations against Bo came as a surprise to those who had expected party leaders to temper their treatment of him in deference to his ideological allies and his many supporters. The long list of charges suggested that China’s leaders ultimately agreed to throw their full weight against him, perhaps out of concern that treating Bo too gently could leave him undiminished as a potential rival to a new team of leaders.
Among other charges, Bo was accused of abusing his office, accepting bribes (directly as well as through family members), failing as a supervisor, promoting the wrong people and breaking an assortment of party rules. Other charges included “improper relationships with a number of women” and playing a role in the murder plot.
Bo has not been seen in public in months and had not — until Friday — been mentioned by name in state-controlled media for a significant period of time. No information on his whereabouts or his potential trial date was included in a report by the state-run Xinhua News Agency, which detailed the charges.
As an apparent sign of how thoroughly authorities want to purge Bo from the party, investigators reached back decades in detailing his alleged crimes — going as far as his early posts in Dalian city and as China’s minister of commerce, and continuing to his recent powerful perch on China’s Politburo and his role as party chief in Chongqing, one of China’s biggest cities.
They also ended Bo’s list of alleged misdeeds on an ominously vague note, saying investigators had discovered clues suggesting “other crimes.”
“This last one is the most serious one,” said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese leaders at the Brookings Institution. “It could mean the party leaders are trying to hold a big card over Bo to force him to cooperate.”
Bo’s wife and his former top aide cooperated fully at their recent trials, never challenging an official, if at times bizarre, account asserting that Gu had killed British businessman by luring him to a hotel room, getting him drunk and then poisoning him with cyanide-laced water.
Bo — whose role, if any, in the murder plot remains unclear — could prove a more defiant subject, however. He built his career on a charismatic personality and a penchant for making unorthodox moves and challenging Beijing’s traditional power structure.
Before his downfall, Bo was seen as a leader for a growing leftist, Maoist movement in China. As recently as this month, his supporters were turning out in force at anti-Japanese riots, carrying incongruous banners arguing for Bo’s cause, as well as portraits of Mao Zedong. Such demonstrations of popular support may have further convinced leaders that a thorough purge was necessary, said one prominent historian, Zhang Lifan.
“It may have forced them into a decision to punish Bo even more seriously,” Zhang said.
The unusually heavy anti-
corruption language sprinkled throughout the official announcement on Bo also suggests that officials are aware of swelling discontent with the government and may be gearing up to tackle corruption as a main issue in the coming party congress.
Even as they delayed an announcement on Bo’s whereabouts or his fate, leaders had dragged their feet for months on announcing a date for the party congress, where the leadership transition will occur.
The unusual delay was interpreted by many experts as a sign of infighting among competing political factions about who would sit on the next ruling council.
Along with Xi becoming the next president, the identity of the next premier, Li Keqiang, has been all but settled for years. But who will take the remaining spots on China’s next ruling council remains a mystery. According to several people with access to former and current party leaders, the bulk of the remaining seats seemed relatively decided in recent weeks, but the last one or two seats appeared in flux, and it was possible that the council might be shrunk in size from nine to seven total members. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
“One or two seats seem more fluid” than anticipated, said one businessman with ties to top party leaders. “It’s largely been a competition based on pure politics and mentor-based alliances rather than struggle between ideologies.”
Many people posting to Chinese microblogs Friday night were left wondering what further fallout may come and who else in their government could be accused — or be guilty of — wrongdoing. In the endless competition for power among China’s leaders, noted one microblogger using the handle “Huangqiwang,” “people never get to know the truth.”
Wang Juan and Liu Liu contributed to this report.