The ambitious Bo Xilai was removed as Chongqing Communist Party Secretary on March 15 [EPA]
And then, suddenly, Chongqing became literally the talk of the (global) town, like a dystopian new Rome, thanks to a monumental political scandal during the National People's Congress on March 15: the downfall of Bo Xilai, politburo member and party secretary for Chongqing.
Bo, wily and media-savvy, was sort of a pop star in China as the top promoter of the so-called Chongqing Model: a back-to-the-past, partly Maoist-inspired push for more state control of the economy, better social services, a harsh crackdown on the local mafia and an effort to promote wealth redistribution, thus alleviating social inequality.
Even though Bo was a "princeling" -- the son of one of the eight immortals of Mao Zedong's revolutionary generation -- his rise to power and fame started in the bottom of the hyper-complex party hierarchy.
Bo was promoted from trade minister to party head in Chongqing in 2007. His Holy Grail was to enter the nine-member Standing Committee of the 25-member Politburo, the people who actually run China Inc like a very select oligarchy.
Bo's weapon of choice was quite sophisticated: his neo-Maoist political campaign of purification (in this case, to get rid of the local mafia) -- inspired by Mao's Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 -- was advised by a number of local intellectuals. No wonder he became wildly popular. Because tens of millions of Chinese deeply resent the arrogance of the new rich -- some of whom made lightning-fast, dodgy fortunes -- an anti-corruption drive mixed with a fight for social inequality couldn't possibly do wrong.
But in the eyes of the collective Beijing leadership, it did. And then came the downfall -- propelled by the defection and subsequent arrest of Bo's top lieutenant, Wang Lijun, who had sought refuge nowhere else than inside the US Consulate in Chengdu, the no-less frenetic capital of Sichuan province.
Is that a tank or a Ferrari?
Anxious to decode what was going on from Sichuan to the corridors of power in Beijing, Western media fed into the immense conspiracy pool, ranging from the silly to the sillier, and including the full display of silliness.
Chinese micro-blogging sites such as Sina Weibo and QQ Weibo, and the bulletin board of the search engine Baidu, may have speculated about "abnormalities" in Beijing on the night of March 19. But if you know how to set it up, anyone can access Google, YouTube and Facebook in China. The notion that tanks in the streets of Beijing would not be noticed or photographed is simply ludicrous.
Clues about what's really going on in the rarefied inner rings of China's politics usually have to be found in the official media. Significantly, in an unsigned essay that went viral, the Global Times referred to "The Chongqing Incident" without even naming Bo, and called for the Chinese people to trust the party leadership.
Which begs the inevitable question: what is the party line right now?
Reading the tea leaves tells us that Bo's downfall happened only one day after Premier Wen Jiabao officially announced that China needed profound political reforms.
That's an understatement, to put it mildly. China is now smack in the middle of not only a once-in-a-decade political transition; it's also in the middle of an earth-shattering once-in-a-generation transition -- from a successful economic model shaped by massive investment to the emerging reality of a consumer society.