Ahmed Elbatrawy

China moves to contain Bo scandal

News of suspended party official Bo Xilai dominated coverage in China's state-run newspapers.

Editor’s note: “Jaime’s China” is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and was TIME Magazine’s Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing (CNN) — For hours, China’s micro-blogging community was abuzz with anxious tweets: an important announcement would be released at 6:30 or 7 p.m. on the official China Central Television (CCTV).

The news release, sources said, would be about the latest development on Bo Xilai, the popular but controversial official who last month was sacked as Communist Party chief of Chongqing, China’s biggest metropolis.

The 7 p.m. bulletin passed and there was no news release on Bo.

Tune in at 10 p.m., sources advised.

10 p.m. passed and still no news on Bo.

Finally, at 11 p.m., China’s mainstream official Xinhua new agency announced that Bo had been stripped of his top Communist Party posts for an unspecified “serious breach of (Communist Party) discipline.”

The terse news item identified Bo as “Comrade Bo Xilai,” signaling that he has not been expelled from the party, but said Bo is still under intra-party investigation.

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The other news was just as shocking. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, and family aide Zhang Xiaojun have been arrested in connection with the mysterious death of British businessman Neil Heywood. Bo’s wife and Heywood, the Xinhua report said, were on good terms but “they had conflict over economic interests.”

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The death of the British businessman, who was found in his hotel room in Chongqing on November 15 last year, has emerged as a key link in an unfolding story of intrigue and suspicion.

Heywood’s death was originally blamed on alcohol poisoning or heart attack, but the case was reopened after reports of possible foul play emerged. The British government sought a new investigation.

Asked if there were updates on the re-investigation of Heywood’s death, foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin replied: “As regards the case of death of the British national Neil Heywood, the relevant information has been publicized and the case has entered the legal process. The justice department will handle it according to law.”

Liu said a Chinese foreign ministry official Tuesday night separately briefed officials of the British and U.S. embassies in Beijing.

The April 10 announcement may mark the end of Bo’s political career, experts say, but not the end of the biggest political crisis to hit the Communist Party in more than two decades.

Bo’s dismissal has triggered political in-fighting in the Communist Party ahead of the once-in-a decade political transition in autumn this year.

China’s leaders are keen to project an image of unity and harmony in the leadership.

So why the delay in official reports?

Hours before the news release Tuesday, Chinese sources say, Communist Party officials, from the top tiers of leadership down, were told of the impending news in closed-door briefings. “Officials decided to tell more people in the grassroots and that process took longer,” says a Chinese source. “The announcement is meant to curb rumors and speculations.”

Bo’s problems began when he fell out with Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, who sought refuge briefly in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in February.

In a commentary published Wednesday, official newspaper The Global Times wrote: “The past two months, there have been a lot of various rumors, but if we look at the whole process, the handling of the unexpected case of Wang Lijun shows that China has strong predictability. It cannot be easily disrupted by some accident or uncertainty.”

Still, the commentary cannot hide the sense of anxiety among officials in charge of news in the mainstream media.

Hours before the news on Bo was read by CCTV announcers, producers at the network received by mobile text messaging an urgent notice: “All producers and section chiefs must inform all staff, including freelancers, before 10 p.m. tonight: no one should use weibo and other Internet tools to forward any untruthful statements. Whether or not they were sent by real-name or anonymous bloggers. This is about news discipline! Please strictly and seriously abide.”

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Ahmed Elbatrawy