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Originally published April 10, 2012 at 7:49 PM | Page modified April 10, 2012 at 8:25 PM

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Former rising star crashes as China arrests wife in murder probe

In a stunning twist to one of China's biggest scandals in decades, state media confirmed Tuesday that Bo Xilai, once seen as a rising political star, has been suspended from his seat on the nation's Politburo and his wife is a suspect in the killing of a British businessman.

McClatchy Newspapers

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CHENGDU, China — In a stunning twist to one of China's biggest scandals in decades, state media confirmed Tuesday that Bo Xilai, once seen as a rising political star, has been suspended from his seat on the nation's Politburo and his wife is a suspect in the killing of a British businessman.

The state-owned news agency Xinhua said that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, and a household staff member are "highly suspected" of involvement in the killing of Neil Heywood, who was found dead in the sprawling city of Chongqing last November. The two have been "transferred to judicial authorities on suspected crime of intentional homicide," Xinhua reported.

The chain of events, which has been unusually public in a nation known for keeping a tight lid on political intrigue, is now certain to have ended Bo's public career. Until recently, Bo was widely considered a leading candidate for one of nine slots on the Politburo standing committee, the core of power in the world's second-largest economy.

Xinhua's report confirmed at least some of the speculation that had been swirling around Bo since his removal March 15 from the position of Chongqing's Chinese Communist Party secretary.

That seemingly abrupt move came after Chongqing's former police chief, a man named Wang Lijun, made an unsanctioned trip to the U.S. consulate here on Feb. 6 and reportedly sought asylum.

There have been allegations that Wang and Bo fell out after Wang aired the possibility that Heywood had been poisoned in a case that might involve Bo's wife.

Chinese officials persuaded Wang to leave the consulate, and he was flown to Beijing, where he has been in custody for the past two months. Bo, 62, has also been under some form of residential confinement since mid-March, and his wife is detained.

The details of Heywood's death aren't publicly known and the exact nature of Heywood's relationship with the Bo family remains vague. He is thought to have met the Bo family when Bo was the mayor of the city of Dalian, a post he held from 1993 to 2000, and acted as a go-between on business deals in the following years.

Heywood was found dead in a hotel room Nov. 15 in Chongqing. Officials there issued a death certificate stating that the cause of death was alcohol poisoning, although Heywood rarely drank. His relatives said that he died of a heart attack and that the body was cremated, at their request, without an autopsy.

But a re-examination of the evidence now indicates that Heywood, 41, a high-spirited business consultant who professed to love living in China, was the victim of an "intentional homicide," China's official Xinhua news agency said.

Xinhua noted Tuesday that Bo's wife, who is a lawyer, and son "were on good terms with Heywood. However, they had conflict over economic interests, which had been intensified."

The announcement appeared to surprise the British government.

An hour later, William Hague, the British foreign minister, told reporters: "It's a death that needs to be investigated, on its own terms and on its own merits, without political considerations. So I hope they will go about it in that way, and I welcome the fact that there will be an investigation."

China is facing a once-in-a-decade handoff of power to a new generation of leaders this autumn, and the toppling of Bo has caused a serious disruption at a time when stability is paramount. Bo, 62, a charismatic and contentious politician who openly aspired to join that new generation, has commanded support among some other descendants of revolutionary figures, certain generals and those in the Communist Party's left wing unhappy about the current direction of the government.

Bo's populist leadership style in the southwestern city of Chongqing was said to have rankled some senior leadership in Beijing and caused deep anxiety about his ascent toward the Politburo standing committee. Bo encouraged large-scale public celebrations of Mao Zedong-era "red culture," along with a harsh crackdown on alleged corruption and mafia activity.

In a political culture that encourages uniformity, Bo stood out as being able to work a crowd, a skill that his backers applauded but his critics pointed to as demagoguery.

The son of a late Chinese Communist Party luminary, Bo had long been regarded as untouchable. One measure of the shock of his fall from grace: Online rumors last month of a coup in Beijing, by all accounts without any grounding in fact, spread in the vacuum of information about what was happening after he was sacked from the Chongqing job.

In addition to being suspended from the 25-person Politburo, the 25-member body that runs China, Bo has been removed from the Communist Party's larger central committee. The party's central commission for discipline inspection is filing a case against Bo for investigation, Xinhua said Tuesday, a sign that his punishment could be more severe than loss of title.

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