Leading article: No longer such plain sailing in China

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The succession of comments this week by the Chinese leadership on the sudden sacking of the Communist Party boss of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, suggests both a nervousness about the public response to the fall of this popular leader and a determination to ensure a stable transition to a new leadership this autumn.

Both the outgoing Premier, Wen Jiabao, and the man widely expected to be his successor, Vice-President Xi Jiping, have now clearly distanced themselves not just from the man but from his populist espousal of a return to Maoist principles. China, declared Premier Wen, could not afford a second Cultural Revolution – a sentiment echoed by his putative successor in an article yesterday, calling for calm and warning of the dangers of a return to the past.

To Western leaders, this must come as some reassurance that China's new leadership will continue on the path of economic growth and a gradual opening of society that we have seen over the past decade. That would certainly appear to be the intention of those at the head of the party in Beijing. But their sensitivity over the sacking of Mr Bo also betrays the pressures they are facing from the rural majority which is seething at the corruption and pollution that have come with growth.

It was to these groups that Mr Bo appealed with his campaigns against entrenched interests, criminal gangs and corrupt officials. And it has been to the peasantry left behind by China's rapid growth that he addressed his "Sing the Red" programmes. As the economy has begun to slow and the government has to cope with rising inflation and unemployment, the strains on society have become more obvious – and harder to manage. Nor is there any sign that these trends will be reversed soon.

In his emotional press conference this week, Premier Wen gave an inkling of just how worrying these pressures have become. He signalled that, ideally, he and his designated successors would like to meet the challenge with a process of political as well as economic adjustment. This week's drama shows how hard this will be, as they will also have to protect their backs.

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