BEIJING — China's communist leadership expelled Bo Xilai from the ruling party Friday and sought to bury him with charges ranging from corruption to sexual affairs, aiming to sweep away their most damaging scandal in decades while finally scheduling their long-awaited leadership transition for November.
A statement from the party's Politburo amounted to a surprisingly strong and wide-ranging indictment against Bo, effectively ending the public of life of the flamboyant 63-year-old populist who was one of China's best known politicians and whose ambition was considered a menace to the country's top leaders.
The former Politburo member and regional party chief is to be charged with crimes dating back more than a decade, including abuse of power, bribe taking and improper relations with several women – banned by the party because they are considered an inducement to corruption. He also is accused of involvement in the cover-up of his wife's murder of a British businessman, which was instrumental in triggering his downfall.
"They want to drive a stake through the heart of his political career, and make it absolutely impossible, not only for him to reappear but for anyone else who has that idea of trying to create that sort of personalized, political, charismatic leadership in some part of China which may challenge the leadership," said Rana Mitter, professor of Chinese history and politics at Oxford University.
The Politburo also announced the party congress would take place Nov. 8.
Dates for the congress, held once every five years, were overdue and highly anticipated because it will see President Hu Jintao step down after 10 years as party boss – and China's ultimate leader – to be replaced by Vice President Xi Jinping.
The congress had been expected to take place in mid-October, although the preparations were overshadowed by the Bo scandal.
"Bo Xilai's behavior resulted in serious repercussions and enormous damage to the reputation of the party and the nation, producing extremely vile effects domestically and overseas, and causing heavy damage to the cause of the party and the people," the Politburo said in a statement issued following its meeting in Beijing.
Speculation swirled for months over whether the party would harshly punish one of its own for criminal wrongdoing, or merely allow its own disciplinary arm to deal him a slap on the wrist.
The scandal was set off when a trusted Bo aide disclosed that his boss's wife had murdered a British businessman. Bo was sacked as party chief of the city of Chongqing; his wife, Gu Kailai, was given a suspended death sentence after confessing to the murder; and the aide, Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, received a 15-year prison term for initially covering up the murder and other misdeeds.
The trials of Wang, which wrapped up this week, and Gu, which finished earlier, cleared the way for the party to decide whether to charge Bo with criminal wrongdoing. But his ouster from the leadership early this year opened a window into the divisive jostling for power as president and party leader Hu prepares to retire to make way for younger leaders.
Bo is the first Politburo member to be purged and handed to prosecutors since Hu had Shanghai party secretary Chen Liangyu sentenced for corruption in 2007. In that case, more than a year passed before Chen stood trial, perhaps auguring a long wait before Bo's case goes to court.
High-level purges, however, are almost always more about political power plays than crimes.
Bo was a divisive figure among Chinese leaders. Self-assured and comfortable with the media, he promoted populist policies as party chief of Chongqing and rode high-profile campaigns to bust organized crime gangs and promote communist culture to national popularity. His ambition was seen as a threat not only by Hu but to Hu's soon-to-be-installed successor, Xi Jinping.
Bo's supporters called the Politburo decision a political tactic. "I have doubts on any criminal wrongdoings of Bo Xilai. I need to see the evidence," said Han Deqiang, an economics professor at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a leading voice in what Chinese call the new left. "I think this is a political battle turned into a criminal one."
Bo's detractors, however, were cheered by the news, though they too saw politics at play in the decision.
"This announcement is long overdue. This means there is some progress in the rule of law in China. There is more transparency," said Li Zhuang, a formidable defense lawyer who found himself jailed in Chongqing after he accused police of extracting his client's confession by torture. "Of course it is also political. In China, politics and law often go hand in hand."
The decision by the 25-member Politburo, of which Bo had been a member, said that "investigations show that Bo had seriously violated party discipline ... abused his power, committed grave mistakes and should be held responsible for the Wang Lijun case as well as Gu's murder case."
The mention of Gu's case appeared to be a reference to obstruction of justice. Wang testified that Bo ignored him when he told him of his suspicions, then boxed him in the ears, demoted him, and detained several of his subordinates.
It was the first direct mention of Bo in state media in months. His name was not mentioned for both Gu's and Wang's trials.
The Politburo statement said that he took huge amounts of bribes directly or through his family and "maintained illicit relationships with numerous females." It said Bo's crimes dated from his time as mayor of the eastern port city of Dalian, through his term as commerce minister and as leader of Chongqing.
Bo's removal is seen as strengthening Xi's position, leaving him the undisputed leader of the party's "princelings," as the offspring of high-ranking communist elders are known.
"Now Bo is finished, Xi can take over those supporters from Bo and enlarge his network among the princelings," said China politics analyst Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Yet his ouster will do nothing to win over Bo supporters among party hardliners and admirers of Bo, who was widely popular among working-class Chinese.
"Xi is safer with Bo gone, but the hardliners will withhold their cooperation at the congress as a sign of their disapproval," said China expert Feng Chongyi of the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia.
Friday's Politburo meeting sets a series of events in motion. The 204-member Central Committee, a cross-section of the national party elite, usually convenes about a week before the congress to approve decisions already made by the Politburo. Privately, the committee will also approve the incoming leaders and a policy blueprint for the next five years.
Associated Press writers Gillian Wong, Didi Tang and Isolda Morillo contributed to this report.