Cracks at the top of China's leadership began to show yesterday as Bo Xilai, one of the nation's most prominent politicians, was sacked as party chief of the city of Chongqing.
The move came a day after the Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, used a press conference at China's annual parliamentary session, the National People's Congress (NPC), to give Mr Bo a public dressing down over a scandal involving former Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, which broke in February.
"This adjustment was made by the central government taking into account the present situation and after careful consideration," said Li Yuanchao, head of the ruling Communist Party's powerful personnel department, during the announcement of Mr Bo's dismissal.
Mr Bo's high-profile crackdown on organised crime in Chongqing – executed by Mr Wang – had been popular among ordinary people. He had been tipped for appointment to China's Politburo Standing Committee, the country's highest decision-making body, later this year.
Mr Wang is under investigation in Beijing after spending 24 hours at the American consulate in Chengdu. Media reports have speculated that Mr Wang, who was known as Mr Bo's right-hand man and has also been dismissed from his position, had offered sensitive information and attempted to defect.
However, speculation surrounding Mr Bo's sudden dismissal suggests that his career could be the first of many to fall victim to power struggles ahead of the high-level Communist Party reshuffles expected during China's forthcoming leadership change.
The dismissal prompted more than 1.7 million comments on Weibo, the Chinese social network yesterday. "Bo Xilai was welcomed by the Chongqing people. We like leaders who are good to us and we need an explanation about why he fell," wrote one Chongqing resident.
Despite Mr Bo's popularity, his calls for a "red revival" – a return to the ideological days of Chairman Mao Zedong – had attracted controversy. In his NPC statement this week, Mr Wen expressed his dislike for "red" campaigns.
Duncan Innes-Ker, senior editor at The Economist Intelligence Unit's China Country Report, said the decision to sack Mr Bo was an "unfortunate reflection on what it takes to be successful as a senior Chinese politician".
"Bo Xilai may have been tainted by the corruption allegations swirling around those close to him, and was doubtless cynical in some of the populist positions that he adopted, but he was genuinely popular," he said.