If not for its embarrassing foreign links, China's biggest political scandal in a generation might not have erupted, exposing the lack of transparency, accountability, and the rule of law in the country, experts say.
After months of speculation about a power struggle at the top, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua said in just one line on Tuesday that high-flying politician Bo Xilai, who until last month was one of a select few poised to run China, has been expelled from the ruling circle.
Separately, state media said that 62-year-old Bo's lawyer wife Gu Kailai has been arrested for the suspected murder of a family friend, British businessman Neil Heywood, in a hotel room in Chongqing, the sprawling municipality once ruled by Bo.
The Chinese leadership swiftly moved to sideline Bo after his police chief Wang Lijun fled from Chongqing to the U.S. consulate in neighboring Chengdu in early February, apparently in fear for his safety and taking along with him loads of intelligence information.
Wang spilled the beans to U.S. diplomats about Bo's dealings during his 30 hours at the consulate, giving extraordinary details about the jockeying for power inside China's closed political system and official links to notorious organized crime groups.
More importantly, Wang said that Heywood, found dead in a Chongqing hotel room in November last year, had been poisoned on Gu's orders, contradicting claims by Chinese authorities that the 41-year-old businessman had died of an alcohol overdose, various reports say.
Wang provided American diplomats with "a technical police file" on Heywood's death, as well as divulging a "trove of knowledge on the contest for power among the Chinese leadership," according to the New York Times.
Following the claims, and as Heywood was cremated without any postmortem, the British Foreign Office prodded the Chinese authorities to investigate the matter.
The U.S. and British links to the scandal have embarrassed the Chinese leadership, which usually hushes up party scandals and refrains from washing dirty linen in public, experts said.
The Bo episode also highlights the need for transparency, official accountability, and the rule of law in China, said Elizabeth Economy, a China expert at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
"We still don’t know whether any of this political scandal would have come to light had Wang Lijun not spilled his guts to officials in the U.S. consulate or retired senior leaders such as Qiao Shi [reportedly] not played puppet master," she said.
Qiao Shi, the chairman of the standing committee of China's National People's Congress in the 1990s, played a key role in Bo's ouster, opposing the high-flying populist figure who sought to revive the red culture of old in Chongqing while promoting his own personality cult, some reports have said.
Though retired, his former subordinates are all senior officials within the Chinese government or the Communist Party, and Qiao is believed to be exerting his influence through them,
Nonetheless, Economy said the Bo case represents a marked improvement from traditional Chinese politics as it has brought transparency, accountability, and perhaps even the rule of law into the political process.
While the Party is trying to use its handling of the scandal as an example of its respect for the "sanctity and authority of law," it also "raises the expectations of the Chinese people that such transparency and accountability will continue, not only for the duration of the Bo Xilai case but also more broadly through the political system," she said.
"Let’s hope that the remaining Chinese leaders see the advantage of good governance for their own legitimacy."
The Xinhua news agency said that people interviewed by its correspondents across China agreed that the party action against Bo "highlighted the essential principles of being strict with the Party disciplines and the rule of law."
In the first official word on the case Tuesday, Xinhua said that Bo had been suspended from the powerful 25-member Politburo, the second-highest decision-making body in China, because of “suspected serious violations of discipline."
It also said that existing evidence indicated that Heywood died of "homicide," of which Bo's wife and an orderly at Bo's home "are highly suspected."
Britain has welcomed China's new investigations into Heywood's death.
"We did ask the Chinese to hold an investigation, and we are pleased they are now doing that and I stand ready to cooperate in any way we can," British Prime Minister David Cameron was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.
"It's very important we get to the bottom of what happened in this very disturbing case," he added.
China's active netizen community have reacted with concern to Beijing's announcements on the Bo case, which confirmed that the Communist Party is facing its biggest turmoil since a purge before the bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Chinese censors have continued to block online searches for the name of Bo Xilai and have closed more than 40 websites and deleted more than 210,000 online posts since mid-March in a crackdown on "Internet-based rumours.
The fact that Wang had sought refuge at the U.S. consulate and had disclosed intelligence information to the Americans have deeply embarassed the China ahead of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition due to take place later this year, experts said.
"I think it would have been very embarrassing to the Chinese leadership—that here is the chief of police in one of their biggest provinces and the party secretary of that province is a member of the Politburo—and this guy is so afraid [for] his life that he can't figure out a way of getting in touch with them except through the American embassy," John Tkacik, a retired senior U.S. diplomat whose 25-year service was mostly linked to China affairs, told RFA.
Without the speed and ubiquity of the Internet, in particular the difficult to censor Twitter-like “Weibo” microblogs in China, Wang’s flight to the U.S. consulate would likely have been kept under wraps for months if not years and Bo might never have been ousted at all, political analysts told Britain's Financial Times newspaper.
“Especially since Wang Lijun fled to the U.S. consulate, there has been a proliferation of political information and opinion spread through Weibo, and this is unprecedented in China’s history,” the paper quoted Zhan Jiang, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, as saying.
“Weibo represents a political information revolution … a huge shift in the relationship between Chinese politics and the media, particularly the internet.”
Sina Corp.'s Weibo microblogging service has blocked searches for the names of Bo and Gu, but netizens continue to actively discuss the scandal. By Wednesday, a search for "serious violations of discipline"—the charge leveled against Mr. Bo—produced nearly 400,000 posts.
Some zeroed in on Heywood's role in the scandal and speculated whether the Bo episode would have gone this far if it did not involve a foreigner.
In Offbeat China, a blog that tracks the Chinese Internet, one Weibo user said, "In the 19th century, the British came to China to trade and, because of a conflict over economic interests, a succession of horrible things happened and the Qing Dynasty was spent."
"A hundred years later, a Briton has come to China again, and again a succession of horrible things has happened because of conflict over economic interests."
"What happens next, I don't dare imagine."