BEIJING — In a major shakeup in the Communist Party’s top ranks, Bo Xilai, a charismatic but controversial official known for promoting a “red revival” campaign, has been fired as party chief in the city of Chongqing, the official Xinhua news agency reported Thursday.
The report came one day after Prime Minister Wen Jiabao publicly rebuked Bo for a scandal in which Chongqing’s former police chief sought refuge for 24 hours at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. Before then, Bo was widely tipped to be in line for a promotion to China’s most powerful body, the Politburo Standing Committee, in a leadership change due this fall.
Wen spoke Wednesday at what was likely his last major news conference as premier, at the end of the annual meeting of China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress.
The 10-day session closed with the legislature giving overwhelming approval to changes in the country’s criminal code that will allow police to legally hold government critics for six months in secret detention centers.
But Wen focused his remarks on the need for more political openness in China — a process he said should occur gradually, but must not be reversed.
“Without successful political reform, it is impossible for us to fully implement economic reform, and the gains we’ve made in these areas may be lost,” he said. “Even with a single breath left, I am ready to dedicate myself fully to the cause of China’s reform.”
In his 45 years holding various government jobs, Wen said, “I have never pursued personal gain. . . . Ultimately, history will have the final say.” Wen’s has often been a lonely voice in the ruling Communist Party hierarchy arguing for political reform. Without such reform, he added, “such historic tragedies like the Cultural Revolution may happen again.”
The chaos and violence of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, is still considered a politically sensitive part of China’s recent history. That history has sometimes been invoked by hard-liners to justify stern measures of control, but Wen on Wednesday took the opposite tack, saying the Mao-era violence perpetrated by the Gang of Four — four top Communist Party officials, including Mao’s wife and her close associates — was a reason for more political opening, not less.
Wen’s warnings about the Cultural Revolution appeared to be a slap at Bo, who had been considered a leading candidate for a slot on China’s all-powerful nine-member ruling Politburo Standing Committee in a leadership shuffle later this year.
Bo has instituted a “red revival campaign” in Chongqing that includes organizing pageants of Mao-era songs, dispatching students and bureaucrats to toil in the countryside, and ordering local television stations to broadcast red-themed patriotic programs.
Wen made specific reference to Chongqing during the news conference, saying authorities there needed to “seriously reflect” on a scandal involving a senior ex-police official who sought refuge at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu and is now being held and investigated in Beijing.
That Feb. 6 incident involved Wang Lijun, the deputy mayor and former police chief responsible for a sweeping crime crackdown in Chongqing. Bo was Wang’s boss. Wang’s flight — and the 24 hours he spent holed up in the U.S. consulate — is believed to have tarnished Bo’s image. On Wednesday, the premier strongly suggested that Bo held some blame for Wang’s actions.
“The central authorities have taken this matter very seriously,” Wen said.
Xinhua said that Bo is being replaced by a vice premier, Zhang Dejiang, who will also take Bo’s position on the local Chongqing Party Communist branch and its standing committee.
The report made no mention of whether Bo also lost his position on the party central committee and Politburo in Beijing.
In his remarks, Wen made clear that his definition of “political reform” does not necessarily mean allowing Chinese to vote freely any time soon.
Asked when Chinese might enjoy the same rights as people in other countries to vote in competitive elections, Wen repeated his familiar formulation that democracy must come to China “gradually,” with elections first for village offices, then townships.
He made no mention of a specific timetable, or when elections would be allowed — if ever — at the national level. But he said the move to more democracy in China was inevitable, and “no force will be able to hold this back.”
During his nine years as premier, Wen’s views frequently went unheard by the Chinese people because his remarks on politics were censored or heavily edited here at home.
Meanwhile, China’s legislature finalized the criminal code changes that makes it legal for police to hold dissidents for six months at a time in the secret detention centers — known as “black jails.” Detentions and disappearances are a common police practice here and have been used regularly against government critics such as the world-renowned artist Ai Weiwei.
The changes essentially give the police the legal power to continue holding people for months without formal charges when they are accused of threatening “state security,” a catch-all term used to snare anyone advocating more democracy or an end to Communist Party rule.
But the legislation says people accused of ordinary crimes cannot be held indefinitely, and families of all detainees must be notified within 24 hours.
The code change was passed by 2,639 of the roughly 3,000 delegates. They voted after several weeks of an unusually public campaign against the law, waged by lawyers, human rights activists and some academics who said it gave the police far too much power.
In the end, the delegates — who are often accused of merely rubber-stamping government proposals — ignored the public protest and voted for the change.
“I’m not surprised at all — not a single draft law has ever been rejected in the history of NPC,” said Liu Xiaoyuan, a Beijing-based lawyer who has defended Ai Weiwei.
The new law, Liu said, “will bring fear to Chinese citizens. Anyone can disappear simply by saying something that someone doesn’t like on the Internet. Power will be more abused.”
“It is an evil law,” said Mo Shaoping, a human rights lawyer in Beijing whose firm represents Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. “It’s a type of enforced disappearance which is against international conventions.”
Researchers Liu Liu and Zhang Jie contributed to this report.