BEIJING (Reuters) - Ambitious Chinese Communist Party leadership contender Bo Xilai has been toppled from his post as head of the inland city of Chongqing, in a move risking a backlash from backers of his controversial vision of socialist growth.
His abrupt downfall, announced on Thursday by the official Xinhua news agency, exposes ideological divisions as a new generation prepares to take power in China later this year, and may stir tensions between supporters of his more traditional, state-dominated version of socialism, and liberal critics, who saw him as a dangerous opportunist.
Bo was removed as party boss of Chongqing, a sprawling region in the southwest that he turned into a bastion of Communist revolutionary-inspired "red" culture and egalitarian growth, a day after being rebuked by Premier Wen Jiabao in a news conference broadcast live across the country.
The telegenic Bo had been a contender for top leadership, but his prospects suffered a blow after Vice Mayor Wang Lijun, previously his longtime police chief, went to ground in February in the U.S. consulate in nearby Chengdu until he was coaxed out and placed under investigation.
Xinhua said Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang will replace Bo, but gave no further details. It also said Wang had been removed from his vice mayor post.
When announcing Bo's dismissing, the head of the party's powerful organisational department, Li Yuanchao, said the move was made "in light of the serious political repercussions of the Wang Lijun incident," according to Chinese news reports that cited a Chongqing television report.
Vice Mayor Wang had earlier been a key figure in a drive against organised crime that garnered Bo nationwide attention.
While Bo might be kept on in some role until the Communist Party leadership succession this autumn, his hopes for promotion to a top job were finished, said Chen Ziming, an independent scholar in Beijing who follows party politics.
"Now it looks like Wen Jiabao's comments yesterday represented the leadership's collective view that Bo needed to go," said Chen, referring to the premier's pointed rebuke of Bo.
"This will affect the leadership politics for the 18th Congress, because this opens up new uncertainties about who is in contention," said Chen.
The 18th Party Congress late this year will see China's biggest leadership transition in nearly a decade, with Party Chief Hu Jintao and other elders due to retire and hand power to a younger generation headed by Vice President Xi Jinping.
Unlike Bo, Xi has shied away from the limelight. Both are "princelings", the term for children of current, retired or late revolutionary leaders.
"The fact that the Xinhua announcement did not stress that Bo will be placed in another post means that he's probably going to be put under investigation, and there won't be any conclusion on his future until the end of that," said one source, a journalist with extensive contacts among central and Chongqing officials. He spoke on condition of anonymity to protect himself and his contacts.
Bo's fall from a confident defence of his policies at a news conference last week to dismissal this week has come while central authorities push forward with an investigation into Wang's flight to the U.S. mission.
Bo has plenty of fans, attracted to the idea of a "Chongqing model" of development that promises greater equality. Some were riled by his sudden departure.
"The removal of Bo Xilai is a real shock to me. We don't know whether it's because of his personal errors or is an attack on the Chongqing model," said Sima Nan, a leftist writer and broadcaster in Beijing who has praised Bo.
"If this amounts to a negation of the Chongqing model, then I can't agree with this decision."
Wen added to the cloud hanging over Bo on Wednesday by scolding Chongqing for the scandal and obliquely warning against nostalgia for the Mao Zedong era.
"Well, the good news, I guess, is that the risks of leftism and extremism in Chinese politics have just taken a nose dive," said David Zweig, a scholar of Chinese politics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
"I guess nobody really knew what he believed in, except self-promotion, and now the self-promotion has done him in, which is good," said Zweig.
Bo's removal quickly became one of the most talked about topics on China's Twitter-like microblogging site Weibo, with the normal censorship of discussion on top leaders strangely absent. Many people expressed support for Bo.
"With the anti-mafia heroes Bo and Wang both gone, what are we going to do now?" wrote Jin Zhiheng.
The man who takes in Chongqing, Vice Premier Zhang, studied economics in North Korea and is a former party boss in the export-dependent southern province of Guangdong. Unusually, he retains his vice premiership despite his new position.
Xinhua did not mention whether Bo could lose his seat in the Politburo, a central decision-making body that sits under the more powerful Standing Committee. The Politburo itself would have to make that decision.
The mayor of Chongqing, Huang Qifan, widely seen as the brains behind the city's elaborate growth plans, appeared to survive the fall of Bo, at least for now.
Huang said he would "resolutely support the handling of the Wang Lijun incident, and the adjustment of the municipal leadership," the news reports said, citing the Chongqing television broadcast.
Additional reporting by Sisi Tang in Hong Kong; Editing by Don Durfee, Brian Rhoads and Sanjeev Miglani