HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) - Leaders battling for promotion in China's Communist Party are using pages out of an old manual for negotiating the rungs of power, with the launch of separate probes that have tarnished the chances of one rising star and burnished those of another.
While circumstances are murky, the twin cases have rapidly exploded to upset a leadership succession that just weeks ago had been plodding along smoothly.
With the Communist Party's 18th Congress just months away, the sudden downfall of two officials -- one a right-hand man to a rising leader, the other the target of a rising general -- has increased the stakes, revved up the rumormill and added a strong hint of political uncertainty to the most critical leadership transition in China in nearly a decade.
Bo Xilai, the charismatic but controversial party chief of the sprawling Chongqing municipality in western China, has fallen under a cloud with the embarrassing apparent defection attempt by his vice mayor, Wang Lijun, now under probe by the central party authorities charged with handling corruption among senior officials.
The prospects are considerably brighter for General Liu Yuan, an emerging candidate for the powerful Central Military Commission, which also will undergo a major reshuffle late this year to coincide with the broader party succession. Liu was credited with orchestrating the ouster of Lieutenant General Gu Junshan, whose downfall for apparent corruption emerged just days before the surreal Chongqing political drama began to play out.
The two cases illustrate how the official probe is the weapon of choice in Communist Party power politics. Rich with Communist jargon and methodology, a party "disciplinary inspection" is typically accompanied by a whiff of corruption and a strong dose of rumor and scandal. In China's halls of power, it is a cudgel to settle scores and dispose of or weaken political foes.
Weakened, this time, is Bo. The "princeling" son of late Vice Premier Bo Yibo has been actively campaigning for entry to the exclusive Politburo Standing Committee at the congress due later this year, with a high profile war on crime, economic policies to boost Chongqing and a nostalgic Communist revival to win over support from the conservative old guard.
DEEP, MUDDY WATER
His promotion now is now far from certain.
"The waters are deep and muddy, but it looks like Bo Xilai may have reached the end," a source with ties to the Bo family told Reuters.
"Bo Xilai is talented and bold and resolute in his work. He has lofty aspirations and wants to outdo his father," the source said, requesting anonymity to avoid repercussions.
Whatever the answers, the jockeying for power in China is now clearly under way.
"It's just the smoke hiding the fire," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University, who added Bo's Chongqing model may fall under further scrutiny.
"There's a lot we don't know, but on the way to the 18th Party Congress it's a rather troublesome development because it's changing the game to some degree."
Bo's prospects began to unravel as Wang's case unfolded rapidly. There was the official version -- with the news of his demotion followed by him going on leave for health reasons. Then came the visit to the U.S. consulate 330 km (200 miles) east of Chongqing in Chengdu, capital of southwestern Sichuan province, and after staying overnight he left there into the arms of waiting Chinese investigators.
The official line was accompanied by a blast of unverifiable but juicy rumors on China's microblogs, some clearly fuelled by active imagination. Wang had waved a pistol and threatened to take down Bo after his reassignment; he sought asylum at the U.S. consulate; police -- one camp dispatched by Bo and another by the central government -- argued over who would arrest him on the streets outside the American mission.
Rumor aside, two independent sources with knowledge of the matter said Wang was being questioned by anti-corruption investigators in Beijing. In addition to the consulate affair, one source said, the probe included his activities in Chongqing and Liaoning provinces.
Whatever the truth, the spectacle has already been damaging.