Bo Xilai, the mainland's high-profile princeling-politician, is set to be left out in the cold in the upcoming leadership shake-up later this year after his removal as Chongqing party chief yesterday.
The abrupt announcement of Bo's dismissal yesterday morning by Xinhua, China's official news agency, put to rest weeks of speculation about his fate that has dominated domestic political discussions. His removal effectively finished off his political career, which once soared as a major contender for the Communist Party's top ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee.
Analysts say Bo's departure will likely spur further competition for seats on the top decision-making body ahead of the key party congress this autumn.
His exit greatly boosts the prospects of his perceived arch rival, Guangdong party chief Wang Yang, and Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang, who replaced Bo while retaining his current position.
Dr Kerry Brown, a senior fellow with the London-based Chatham House, said: 'Wang Yang has come out of this a real winner.' However, analysts say that Bo, who comes from a privileged political family, may not fall further and may still keep his position in the party's 25-member Politburo until the 18th party congress.
Bo's downfall also spelled the end to the once-hyped 'Chongqing model' and signalled a major setback for the conservative forces within the party, for whom Bo was regarded as a poster boy, according to analysts. Two major leftist websites on the mainland were apparently blocked yesterday following Bo's removal.
Bo, who took over as Chongqing party secretary in late 2007, was dismissed in order to take responsibility for a scandal last month in which his former aide Wang Lijun sought refuge in a US consulate, according to a prime-time evening news programme on Chongqing TV.
Chongqing TV said that Li Yuanchao, the top official for the Communist Party's personnel arrangements and one of the closest allies of President Hu Jintao, had made 'an important speech' about the leadership change at a meeting of high-level Chongqing officials in the southwestern municipality yesterday morning.
'This leadership adjustment was due to grave political impact caused by Wang Lijun,' Li was quoted as saying. 'After careful consideration, central authorities made the decision based on the current circumstances and the overall situation.'
Analysts, however, said there were indications Bo would not be subjected to the harsher punishment that befell other previous top officials, such as former Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu and former Beijing party boss Chen Xitong. Both were Politburo members before being jailed on corruption charges, and were believed to have been victims of a behind-the-scenes power struggle in the lead-up to the previous leadership succession.
In a positive sign for Bo, Li yesterday specifically acknowledged his contribution to the development of the municipality, which was established in 1997.
'All these achievements [in Chongqing] were accomplished under the correct leadership of the party and the State Council and were the results of joint efforts by the previous and current municipal leadership as well as its 32 million people,' Li was quoted as saying.
Zhang Ming, a political analyst from Renmin University, said that while Bo's political career was at an end, he was unlikely to suffer the same fate as Chen Liangyu as some under-the-table deal about his future was probably made.
'Unless Bo unwisely tried to fight back, his career will end up like that of Wang Lequan,' Zhang said. Wang was removed from the post of Xinjiang party chief in 2010 because of his controversial hardline approach to the restive region. He now serves a largely ceremonial position on the party's political and legal affairs committee while still keeping his membership on the Politburo.
Vice-Premier Zhang, 65, who is believed to have flown into the municipality on Wednesday night, also delivered a speech at the meeting yesterday morning. He vowed to keep in line with the top leadership under Hu. Wang Lijun was also officially removed from his vice mayor post yesterday. He Ting, a police chief in Qinghai, was appointed to take up the post. The meeting was chaired by Chongqing mayor, and Bo's ally, Huang Qifan, who pledged to uphold Beijing's decisions and to support Zhang. Bo's whereabouts were not immediately known.
Chatham House's Dr Brown said: 'It shows that for all the talk of party institutions and processes, in the end it comes down to good old-fashioned conflicts and competition between different figures.'
Zhang, of Renmin University, believed the removal decision was made during the just-concluded annual session of the National People's Congress after Bo made a vigorous defence of himself on March 9. But Dai Qing, a writer and veteran journalist, said the decision might have been made earlier. It was only announced yesterday 'because of concerns that it may steal the limelight of the annual parliamentary session and cause greater adverse political impact,' she said.
She said Bo would likely be able to keep his seat at the Politburo at least until the leadership succession later this year.
The announcement of Bo's removal came just a day after Premier Wen Jiabao openly rebuked Bo over the handling of the Wang Lijun scandal on the last day of the 10-day annual parliamentary session.
'The current party committee and government of Chongqing must seriously reflect upon and learn lessons from the Wang Lijun incident,' Wen said in his last nationally televised press conference.
Wen did not single out Bo by name. But his unusually harsh criticism - the highest-level official to make public comments on the scandal - was widely seen as conveying a consensus-based opinion reached by the top leadership, who were apparently shocked by Wang's defection attempt.
Wang, who was handpicked by Bo to spearhead the latter's controversial crusade against organised crime, tried to seek asylum in the US consulate in Chengdu, Sichuan on February 6.
The scandal sent shock waves across the country and sparked international headlines. Bo has earned notoriety for his crusade against organised crime. But his programme was widely criticised by intellectuals for allegedly riding roughshod over the rule of law. His controversial red-song-singing campaign and his ultra-orthodox championing of hardcore socialist ideology, such as the pursuit of common prosperity, also drew critics.
Analysts said his ease and charm and grandstanding on corruption set him apart from inept bureaucrats but upset his rivals.
Additional reporting by Laura Zhou