The fall of Bo Xilai, once the rising star of China's Communist Party, has been spectacular to watch. Initially purged last month because his superiors feared he might launch a "new Cultural Revolution," the ouster was shocking enough to spark rumours that Mr. Bo and his allies were planning to seize power in Beijing via a coup d'état.
Then came stories of a British businessman, a fixer for Mr. Bo's family, turning up dead in a hotel room in Chongqing, the Yangtze River metropolis governed by Mr. Bo.
Chinese investigators have since connected Mr. Bo's high-profile wife, Gu Kailai, to the killing. State media have suggested she had Neil Heywood poisoned after a falling out over "economic matters" – a reported attempt to move the Bo family's billions out of the country – with other sources hinting at an extramarital affair gone awry. Astonishing stuff from the Communist Party, which usually excels at presenting a façade of unity.
Adding to the screen-worthiness of the tale, Mr. Bo's playboy son, Bo Guagua – who drove a red Ferrari around Beijing and hung out with movie star Jackie Chan – has now disappeared from his classes at Harvard University. The richest businessman in the eastern Chinese city of Dalian, where Mr. Bo was previously mayor, has also vanished, presumably into police custody. Oh, and lest we forget, Mr. Bo's flamboyant top policeman started the fireworks back in February by entering a U.S. consulate and trying to defect.
But beyond the headlines of murder, lust and corruption in southwest China, the fallout from the scandal has also tilted the world's most populous country away from the throwback leftist politics Mr. Bo embraced. Once-embattled economic liberals within the ruling Communist Party are suddenly on the rise, using the affair to bludgeon their political rivals.
The very public humiliation of Mr. Bo – now stripped of all party posts after previously being seen as a shoo-in to be named to the Standing Committee – has brought to the surface the decades-old split that pits a group of liberal-minded reformers like Premier Wen Jiabao against a hard-line wing of the party that believes it is time for China, after 20 years of unprecedented economic growth accompanied by widening inequality, to increase state control and turn back toward its socialist roots.
It's the biggest rupture inside China's ruling elite since 1989, when Zhao Ziyang was ousted as Communist Party chairman after he sided with the pro-democracy demonstrators on Tiananmen Square. The shift comes at a critical juncture, just months before the Communist Party will unveil its new leadership lineup, with seven of the nine current members of the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo set to retire this fall. The new Politburo lineup will set the direction for the world's rising superpower for the coming decade.
After years of being the lone voice at the top advocating greater economic and political openness within China's one-party system, the scandal in Chongqing has, at last, given Premier Wen the upper hand.
It was Mr. Wen himself who launched the move against Bo Xilai, declaring on March 15 that "without the success of political reforms, historical tragedies like the Cultural Revolution could possibly happen again." It was a clear reference to Mr. Bo, who encouraged Chongqing residents to sing "red" songs associated with the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and'70s, a time of deadly class warfare around the country.
At his fateful press conference, Mr. Wen said Chongqing administrators needed to "reflect" on their errors. Within 24 hours, Mr. Bo was ousted and the tales of murder and corruption started coming to light.
There are reports on overseas Chinese websites that another ally of Mr. Bo's, senior Politburo member Zhou Yongkang, is himself now the subject of an internal Communist Party probe. Both Mr. Zhou, who heads the country's massive security apparatuses, and Mr. Bo are seen as protégés of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, who at 85 still wields substantial influence and is seen as a rival of current President Hu Jintao.
(All that's known for sure about the next Politburo is that Xi Jinping, the current vice-president, will head it. Little is known about the political views of Mr. Xi, who is believed to have been selected as a compromise between the two factions.)
With Mr. Bo out of the picture, the liberal wing of the party is advancing proposals to privatize state-owned assets and open China's financial sector to foreign competition. Meanwhile, Mr. Bo's statist ideas are being sidelined. Many popular leftist and nationalist websites have been blocked on Chinese servers since shortly after Mr. Bo's troubles began last month.
"There's no need to decide which side to stand on, because everybody knows they need to stand opposite to Bo," said Zhang Ming, a professor of political science at Renmin University in Beijing. A series of editorials in the state-controlled media have urged China's people, and particularly the military (where Mr. Bo is believed to still have allies), to "firmly support" the decision to oust Mr. Bo.
Some worry that useful ideas are being purged along with the man. While Mr. Bo gained fame for his use of Maoist propaganda in Chongqing – as well as a no-holds-barred campaign against the city's crime syndicates – the "Chongqing Model," as the experiment came to be known, also included efforts to address China's yawning urban-rural income gap through a trial reform of the country's hated household registration system, one that finally allowed rural-born residents to claim the same rights as those born in the city. Mr. Bo also oversaw a massive expansion of social housing in Chongqing, as well as a push to improve the local ecology by replacing billboard advertisements with millions of newly planted trees.
The Chongqing Model, and its emphasis on greater state involvement in the economy, was often held up as one possible road China's next generation of leaders could follow. The contrasting approach – the "Guangdong Model" – was on display in coastal Guangdong province, where local Communist Party boss Wang Yang focused his efforts on opening the economy and even allowing some non-government organizations to take root. Now, many expect the Guangdong Model will prevail simply because no one will dare express support for the Chongqing Model, lest it be interpreted as support for Mr. Bo.
"I have no idea what's happening with Bo Xilai. The real issue is that public discussion and debate has been wiped out. And that's a real danger," said Wang Hui, a Tsinghua University professor seen as one of the intellectual leaders of the "new left" movement with which Mr. Bo was affiliated.
Leftists and liberals alike find common ground on one point: that Mr. Bo's case needs to be heard in public so that China can finally break the cycle of justice carried out behind the curtain. "This country has no rule of law because the leaders don't follow the law," said Tie Liu, a veteran Communist Party journalist who has backed Mr. Wen in his reform push. "This is why history keeps repeating itself in China."