Leaders signal accord on Bo
The mainland leadership's move over the weekend to launch a sweeping crackdown on microblogging sites is notable not only for its scale and severity but also for its timing.
It came after the authorities had largely turned a blind eye to frenzied rumours of political infighting at the highest levels and allowed them to circulate over the internet for weeks.
The decision to crack down was made apparently after the leaders were incensed by the internet-fuelled rumours of a coup and gunshots following the March 15 sacking of Bo Xilai as the Chongqing party secretary. Although those rumours were immediately dismissed as fabrication, several Western newspapers picked them up, lending them more credence.
More importantly, the crackdown was also aimed at sending out a subtle signal that the top mainland leaders, who were until recently rumoured to have different opinions on how to deal with Bo, have reached consensus.
They are also apparently worried that such rumours, if left unchecked, will have a serious impact on the once-in-a-decade leadership reshuffle, which is entering the final crucial stretch of intense horse-trading before the unveiling of the new leadership at the Communist Party's 18th congress in October.
But the irony is that the crackdown, harsh even by mainland standards, is expected, in the absence of facts, to fuel even more and wilder speculation about the mainland's secretive power politics. Illustrious mainlanders have already started to use code names and newly coined phrases to swap gossip.
The latest speculation is that the mainland's leaders have widened an investigation into the snowballing scandal involving Bo and his family in a sign they are trying to build up a criminal case against the populist politician. Until recently, there were also rumours that Bo could escape with a light punishment and would be given some high-ranking ceremonial title, since he remained a Politburo member.
Bo and his wife are believed to be under house arrest in Beijing. Their son, Bo Guagua, is believed to have returned to Beijing late last month from Harvard University, where he was studying, and to be staying with his parents.
The mainland leadership has sent several teams of investigators - including officials from the party's anti-graft watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and agents from the Ministry of State Security - to Dalian in Liaoning province and Chongqing to probe Bo's current and former associates.
Several officials and businessmen with close connections to Bo and his family have been detained, the most prominent being Xu Ming, a well-known industrialist based in Dalian. Bo made his name as a rising political star in Dalian, where he was the acting mayor and then mayor from 1992 to 2000, steering the port city's metamorphosis into a modern metropolis.
There have been persistent rumours that, among other things, Xu and other businessmen funded Bo Guagua's scholarships to the exclusive British private school Harrow, then Oxford and Harvard.
However, speculation about a deepening rift in the mainland's top leadership is off the mark, according to several people familiar with their thinking.
Beijing launched an investigation immediately after the attempted defection of Wang Lijun, Chongqing's then police chief and Bo's right-hand man, at the US consulate in Chengdu, Sichuan province, in early February. But because of the delicate situation, the investigation needed time, and certain procedures had to be followed.
Sources said only preliminary results of the investigation were available to the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee when it decided to remove Bo as Chongqing party secretary on March 13, the day before the close of the annual session of the National People's Congress.
The next day, Premier Wen Jiabao publicly rebuked Bo and issued a stern warning that Bo's doings in Chongqing risked a return of the Cultural Revolution.
Until then, there were intense rumours that Zhou Yongkang, the Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of law and order, and Wu Bangguo, the NPC's chairman and also a Politburo Standing Committee member, had different opinions about how to handle Bo's case. Zhou is widely known as a strong supporter of Bo, while Wu is believed to have favoured Huang Qifan, Chongqing's mayor.
Sources said it was inevitable that the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee would differ over how to handle such a major political crisis.
'But once a decision is made, everyone in the committee will have no choice but to fully support the consensus,' one source said. 'That is how the mainland's top leadership has survived numerous crises in the past - by appearing united.'
More interestingly, if recent history is any guide, Huang's future as mayor of Chongqing appears secure, despite the speculation that his political career could suffer a fatal blow because of his close working relationship with Bo.
Over the past two decades, at least two Politburo members were purged when they were party chiefs of leading cities. They include former Beijing party secretary Chen Xitong and former Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu. Even though both were arrested and later jailed on corruption charges, the mayors of their respective cities survived unaffected.
Meanwhile, credible details have emerged about Wang's attempted defection, which led to Bo's ouster.
Sources said Wang was tasked to lead an investigation into the death of British businessman Neil Heywood in Chongqing in November. In January, they said, Wang reported to Bo that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai was implicated in the death.
Bo, who is very fond and protective of Gu, his second wife, was incensed, the sources said, and reassigned Wang as a vice-mayor in charge of less important portfolios, such as culture and education.
Wang apparently panicked and feared for his life after discovering that his aides, including his driver, secretary, and bodyguard, were all unreachable at the same time, presumably secretly detained by Bo.
On February 6, Wang drove to Chengdu, where he first sought refuge at the British consulate but was rejected, before he succeeded in walking into the US consulate.
Heywood's exact relationship with Bo's family remains unclear, although he was rumoured to have helped manage their overseas assets and advised the family on Bo Guagua's schooling abroad.
But sources dismiss suggestions that he was murdered, saying that if he was, Heywood's family - who have remained largely silent - would have raised the alarm at the time of his death in November.