The ruling Chinese Communist Party has announced the sacking of leadership hopeful Bo Xilai from his post as leader of the scandal-hit city of Chongqing, just a day after he was criticized by premier Wen Jiabao at the end of the annual parliamentary session.
The news was announced initially in a terse one-line report from the state-run news agency Xinhua.
"Bo will no longer serve as secretary, standing committee member or member of the [Communist Party] Chongqing municipal committee," the agency said in a later, slightly longer dispatch.
Bo, at the center of a political scandal since early February, will be replaced by vice-premier Zhang Dejiang, who has previously held Party secretary posts in Guangdong, Jilin, and Zhejiang provinces, Xinhua said.
"The Party Central Committee made the decision after discreet consideration and based on current circumstances and the overall situation," it quoted Party organizational boss Li Yunchao as saying.
China's hugely popular microblogging services were abuzz with the news on Thursday, with satirical photo-comics commemorating Bo's rise and fall making the rounds on Sina Weibo, which dedicated a special "hot topic" page to the news.
Some expressed sadness at the departure of Bo, who had been tipped as a rising political star, but whose career was widely speculated to be over following the visit of his former second-in-command and graft-busting police chief Wang Lijun to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu.
"We should get a few more who aren't afraid to fight corruption," wrote user @binxiaodie on Sina Weibo. "It's a shame to see what became of him. I guess there aren't many more with the stomach for the fight now."
And user @AAAxiswusanhuohuohuo commented: "So now the Communist Party political power struggles have come out of the closet," adding, in an apparent caricature of Cultural Revolution sloganeering: "The people of Chongqing will love Brother Bo and Brother Wang forever!"
Bo's populist campaigns to fight graft and bring back the "red" values of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) were controversial, however, with many complaining of municipal extravagance and citing fears of a return to the political turmoil and violence of that era.
"The red songs and anti-graft campaigns in Chongqing meant that they were spending billions a year on red songs and only millions on the evironment," wrote user @wangshi-a-rufeng, citing unspecified figures that RFA was unable to confirm.
"While Bo Xilai spent all that money on a whim, you should know that there were poor families in counties on the outskirts of Chongqing whose children had nothing to eat and not enough clothes to stay warm," the user wrote, accusing Bo of trying to set up a personality cult around himself in the manner of late supreme leader Mao Zedong.
'What's going on?'
Many netizens simply commented along the lines of "What is going on?" or "Now things are heating up."
"Zhang Dejiang's predecessor as Chongqing Party secretary was Bo Xilai. Bo Xilai's predecessor as Chongqing Party secretary was Wang Yang. Wang Yang's predecessor as Guangdong Party secretary was Zhang Dejiang," wrote user @chenmanVyuweibodaren, although many variations on the theme were posted by others.
Zhang's tenure in Guangdong was during the SARS epidemic, when Chinese officials were widely criticized at home and internationally for covering up the extent of the epidemic.
"Bo's work in Chonqing was supposed to open up his route to [central government in] Beijing," wrote user @wowoyujiajia. "But the seat he wanted was already taken."
@black54_lanyuerweibodaren agreed: "Political power struggles have been this way since ancient times. It's just that this time, it is happening in the open instead of behind closed doors."
Bo's sacking comes after premier Wen Jiabao warned in a rare public comment on China's past that a failure to reform the political system could spark a return to the Cultural Revolution.
Netizens and media commentators said they saw a clear link between Wen's warning and his criticism of Chongqing's "mistakes" and Bo's ouster.
"So has the Cultural Revolution come back again?" asked Sina Weibo user @shisijuqingnian.
The news of Bo's dismissal was carried by major Chinese websites as a headline, though few deviated from the official reports issued by Xinhua.
But commentator Hu Shuli, writing in the business magazine Caixin, said Wen's repeated references to the 1980s official verdict on the Cultural Revolution in the context of the Chongqing scandal was highly significant.
"Wen Jiabao emphasizes that the authorities in Chongqing must draw on the lessons of the Wang Lijun incident, and then he talks about the lessons of the Cultural Revolution," Hu wrote, in a commentary translated by the Hong Kong-based China Media Project.
"In his first response [at Wednesday's press conference] Wen voices concern that political reforms might be avoided and even that the Cultural Revolution might be replayed. Without a doubt, the re-mentioning of the Resolution again reveals a concern that the Cultural Revolution might be repeated," she wrote.
The 1981 "Resolution" was the first official Communist Party document to reject completely the political premises and the events that occurred during the Cultural Revolution.
The document describes the Cultural Revolution, which saw the often-violent persecution of millions of educated Chinese at the hands of kangaroo courts, as "erroneously initiated by [Party] leaders and manipulated by counterrevolutionary cliques, and bringing serious disaster and internal chaos to the Party, the nation and our people."
According to Hu, the most substantial thing about the Resolution was its complete rejection of the Cultural Revolution, ruling that it "had not in any sense been, nor could it ever be, a revolution or mark of social progress."
Chongqing municipal authorities were holding an emergency political meeting on Thursday to discuss arrangements in the wake of Bo's departure, official media reported.
Reported by Luisetta Mudie.