BEIJING — China’s Communist Party machine sought Wednesday to stave off criticism of the ouster of disgraced politician Bo Xilai and the arrest of his wife in a murder probe, coordinating an official chorus of approval and moving to suppress Internet references to the matter.
Editorials and official commentaries in the state-run news media said the decision to dismiss the former Chongqing party chief from his remaining posts showed that the party respects the rule of law. In the capital, party members and officials announced their unanimous support for the decision, according to the Beijing News. And the evening news broadcast on state-run CCTV featured interviews with party officials, academics and ordinary people from across the country, all lauding Bo’s removal.
But the staged show of unity and support seemed to belie official nervousness that Bo, the son of a revolutionary veteran, had become a hero to many on China’s far left and that his followers might denounce his purge as politically motivated.
Government censors moved quickly to ban Internet search terms related to Bo’s firing; his “Chongqing model”; the arrest of his wife, Gu Kailai; and the mystery surrounding the death, now ruled a homicide, of expatriate British businessman Neil Heywood. Hundreds of thousands of comments, many supportive of Bo, were erased overnight from Chinese news Web sites.
Party leaders “are eager to pacify public opinion as soon as possible,” said Zhang Lifan, a historian. Speaking of Bo, Zhang said: “Right now, a large number of people in China still support him, regarding him as the spiritual leader for the Maoists. Many people on the Internet still defend him. It’s possible that they will be an unstable force for China at a time when the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing.”
Many of Bo’s most prominent and normally outspoken “new left” supporters were not answering their telephones Wednesday, and the few who did were reluctant to speak openly.
“I can’t address whether Bo Xilai is the victim of political struggle,” said Zhang Hongliang, an economics professor at Beijing’s Minzu University of China and a new left cheerleader for Bo. “Although you can ask your question freely, I cannot give you my answer freely. I don’t live in a vacuum. Some questions are too sensitive for me to address.”
The sense of unease was heightened by reports of an unrelated riot Tuesday night in Chongqing, a southwestern city of 30 million people where Bo served as party secretary until his removal last month. Witnesses said tens of thousands of people turned out in the streets to protest the merger late last year of their economically struggling district, Wansheng, with the poorer district of Qijiang, battling police armed with electric batons and pepper spray.
The crowds began gathering Tuesday night at least three hours before the official announcement of Bo’s removal from his remaining party positions on the Central Committee and as a member of the 25-person Politburo. The protesters were angry that some of their social welfare, health insurance and pension benefits had been reduced because of the merger with the other district. Bo, during his high-profile 41 / 2-year tenure as Chongqing party boss, had engendered popular support by addressing problems of economic disparity.
“Last night, the streets were packed with people,” said one woman, the owner of a hot-pot restaurant, who was reached by phone. She said the protesters chanted “We need to eat” and “Return our Wansheng” before they were dispersed. “I saw the police beat students, children and old people,” she said. “Many people were injured.” On Wednesday, she said, the streets were empty because of a massive police presence. Most shops and restaurants, including hers, were closed.
The restaurant owner said she had a “good impression” of Bo, noting in particular his crackdown on gangsters.
Zhang Hongliang, the professor, said Chongqing residents recognized Bo’s achievements in improving their welfare and the local economy. He “did a great job as party secretary,” Zhang said. “I still believe the Chongqing model is the correct way to save China.”
Zhang and others said it was Bo’s efforts to “redivide the cake,” as Bo put it — seeking to ensure that China’s explosive development benefited the majority of citizens — that had unnerved party leaders in Beijing.
Bo was also noted for his “Green Chongqing” campaign, which planted hundreds of thousands of trees across the city, and for pushing for the construction of apartments for lower-income residents. He had also outlined grand plans to turn Chongqing into a major regional center for foreign investment and finance, including creating an industrial and high-tech zone modeled on Shenzhen, the prosperous enclave bordering Hong Kong.
But what perhaps made Bo best known — and admired by the new left — was his promotion of “red revival” in Chongqing. He organized government workers and students to gather in parks to sing old revolutionary anthems. He ordered Chongqing’s local television station to dispense with prime-time game shows, sitcoms and commercials in favor of “patriotic” programming. He created a “red Twitter” account to blast off short, patriotic messages to local cellphones. And he dispatched bureaucrats and university students to do stints of manual labor in Chongqing’s rural areas.
On Wednesday in Chongqing, the manner of Bo’s firing from his remaining party posts and the sensational details involving his wife were greeted with surprise, even shock, including among those who opposed his policies.
“Many people actually didn’t want to believe that Bo had such big issues,” said Alan Zhang, a blogger and recent graduate of the Southwest University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing, speaking by phone. Zhang, who said he was not a supporter of Bo’s, said his wife’s arrest in connection with the Briton’s death was especially unexpected. “Many of the people around me said it was a rumor and that the Englishman just drank too much,” he said.
Wang Kang, a prominent Chongqing writer reached by phone, said that before his fall, Bo “had all the characteristics of a Western politician. He brought his own political ideas and personality into Chinese politics, which is a boring bureaucratic system.”
“If we judge from an objective perspective,” Wang said, “then during the past four years, Bo Xilai made vivid and dramatic changes in Chongqing.”
Researchers Zhang Jie in Beijing and Wang Juan in Shanghai contributed to this report.