The Chongqing municipal government announced Feb. 8 that Deputy Mayor Wang Lijun would take an extended leave of absence to recover from a "long period of excessive work, a high level of mental stress, and serious physical condition." The statement was released on the government's official Weibo microblog site hosted by Xinhua News Agency, China's state-owned media organ.
The unusually public confirmation of Wang's removal came after intense public speculation surrounding Wang's latest reassignment. After he was ousted as head of municipal security on Feb. 2, Wang reportedly sought asylum Feb. 7 at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. (The U.S. State Department later confirmed that Wang had a meeting at the consulate.) Wang is known in China as a close associate of Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, a popular but controversial figure known for his conspicuous public profile in a political culture that values stoicism and uniformity and for his success in developing the "Chongqing model" for inland Chinese economic development. It is unclear what, if anything, Bo's relationship with Wang had to do with his ouster, but Wang's dismissal could be a sign of increased political turmoil ahead of China's leadership transition (key politburo positions are to be set in October and the new government will be sworn in next March).
Given the opacity of the Chinese political system, there could be any number of reasons for Wang's removal, though the central government has long been known to send not-so-subtle hints to certain politicians by demoting or sacking their subordinates. This may be the case with Bo. As party secretary in Chongqing, Bo has overseen the development of the Chongqing model, which is more than just an economic experiment and encompasses a number of trends that may define the future of China.
First, it represents a move beyond traditional export-oriented growth and toward inland infrastructure and economic development, no small achievement in a country where the wealth disparity between the poorer interior and richer coastal regions is a constant source of concern for the government. Second, it has pioneered various public housing initiatives and social reforms, including the pioneering reform of its Hukou system, that have proved popular. Third, the Chongqing government has made an effort to revive some of the trappings of Communist Party ideology by advocating the teachings of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong and mandating the recital of nationalist songs as part of his "red campaign." This trend fits in with the wider political resurgence of neo-leftism in the country.
Due to the success of the Chongqing model, along with his charismatic and outspoken political persona, Bo is unusually popular for a Chinese political figure. He is contemplating running for a 2012 Politburo Standing Committee seat in what will be his last opportunity to win one, given that he is 63 years old and Chinese officials are barred from seeking office past the age of 67.
While Beijing has praised the Chongqing model, certain elements within the government could view Bo as a potential threat to the established order and collective nature of the Politburo — not least because of his status as a "princeling," the informal term for descendants of the individuals who founded the Communist Party of China. This status could posit put him at the center of factional political competition, particularly with the so-called Tuanpai (China Communism Youth League). These elements opposed to Bo may be using Wang as a starting point on undermining his political momentum or as a warning against his seeking the Standing Committee seat.
Wang and Bo have long been considered close allies, and in fact Bo brought Wang to Chongqing in 2007 as head of the public security bureau after Bo served as Liaoning province party secretary. However, it is also possible that the two officials had a falling out and that Bo sacked Wang himself. After taking over as Chongqing party secretary and security chief, respectively, the two officials coordinated a crackdown on organized crime and corruption in the city, though rumors have circulated (thus far unsubstantiated) that Wang had investigated Bo's family, a possible cause for a break.
However, if Bo was responsible for ousting Wang, there is no obvious reason for him to have done so in such a public manner and one that could taint his own reputation through their association. It is also unclear why Wang would have gone to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, where he would eventually be turned over to Chongqing authorities, unless he wanted to create a measure of political drama.
Regardless of the reason for Wang's removal, maintaining stability during the 2012 leadership transition is Beijing's top priority, and the ouster of a high-profile politician's subordinate is counter to that goal. Factional infighting can mar the transition or even stall it, particularly at a time when China is facing numerous economic and social problems. Wang's sacking could be a gauge of Bo's political career and a potential sign of more political turbulence to come at a time when the country can least tolerate it.