The murder trial on Thursday of Gu Kailai, the wife of former Chongqing boss Bo Xilai, is certainly a spectacular and rare case of Chinese elite politics playing out in public. But it is hardly unprecedented. The unfolding drama surrounding of Mr. Bo resembles in key respects the fall of two other Politburo members over the past 15 years—former Beijing party chief Chen Xitong in 1995 and former Shanghai party boss Chen Liangyu in 2006. These sequence of these parallel incidents, as well as the broader political context, show the Communist Party is gearing up for another consolidation.
Chen Xitong's downfall began with a corruption investigation into an important state-owned enterprise in early 1995. That investigation soon implicated Beijing Vice Mayor Wang Baosen in "economic crimes." On April 4, the day after receiving a summons from the Central Decision Investigative Committee (CDIC) and state prosecutor's office, Wang committed suicide. Under these circumstances, Chen Xitong submitted his resignation.
Mainland Chinese media depicted the Wang investigation and Mr. Chen's resignation as the products of an ongoing anti-corruption drive. On 29 April 1995, for example, the P.R.C.-owned Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po dismissed rumors and speculation that Mr. Chen's removal reflected an ongoing factional power struggle in the top leadership as "sheer nonsense."
But the noose soon tightened around Mr. Chen. On July 4 of that year, Xinhua reported that the investigation into Wang Baosen's crimes had implicated Chen Xitong on "a number of major issues" and that the Politburo had decided to open an investigation of "the problems of Comrade Chen Xitong." The issue really heated up when on Sept. 28, the press communiqué of the 14th Central Committee's Fifth Plenum "dismissed" Comrade Chen Xitong from the Politburo and Central Committee. Mr. Chen had "led a dissolute and extravagant life, abused power to seek illegal interests for his relatives and other people, and accepted valuable gifts by taking advantage of his position and while performing public duties," the communiqué stated.
Finally, on Aug. 27, 1997, the eve of the 15th Party Congress, the CDIC expelled Mr. Chen from the CCP. On Feb. 27 the next year, he was arrested, and in June put on trial for "a corrupt and decadent life." On July 31 he was sentenced to 16 years in prison. A People's Daily commentary naturally hailed the Chen case as proof that all are equal before the law.
The takedown of Shanghai party boss Chen Liangyu in 2006 also began with corruption charges against subordinates. On Aug. 24, Xinhua reported that Shanghai Discipline Inspection Commission investigations into misuse of funds by the city government's Labor and Social Security Bureau had implicated Qin Yu, formerly Mr. Chen's personal secretary. A month later, Xinhua reported the Politburo was reviewing a CDIC report on "Comrade Chen Liangyu's problems."
According to Xinhua, the "preliminary investigation" cited Mr. Chen's involvement in the Shanghai social security fund scandal and "other disciplinary violations, such as helping to further the economic interests of illegal entrepreneurs, protecting his staff who severely violated laws and discipline, and furthering the interests of family members by taking advantage of his official posts." "His malpractice," the investigation concluded, "has created a baleful political influence." The Sept. 24 Politburo meeting immediately "suspended" his Politburo membership.
Then on July 26, according to Xinhua, the Politburo expelled Mr. Chen from the party and turned him over for state prosecution. According to that account, among his other offenses, he had "misused power in supporting Shanghai Labor and Social Security Bureau to grant huge loans from the Shanghai social security funds to private companies illegally" and aided private companies purchase shares of state-owned enterprises, "causing great damage to public assets." On April 13, 2008, Xinhua reported, Mr. Chen was sentenced to 18 years in prison and his personal property was ordered confiscated.
As we can see, Bo Xilai and the two Chens were removed on major charges of corruption and blatant violations of party discipline. The Bo case involved the additional element of murder of a foreign businessman and the complicity of his wife in his acts of corruption. Chen Liangyu's case also involved spousal complicity in purloining social security funds, and in the Chen Xitong case, the suicide of a high-level associate.
In the cases of the two Chens, each man was subsequently turned over for criminal prosecution, resulting in lengthy prison terms. A similar fate likely awaits Bo Xilai. The CDIC may submit a report to the Politburo later this summer leading to Bo's expulsion from the party. He would then be turned over for legal prosecution and ultimately imprisonment.
Mr. Bo's removal in that respect therefore does not indicate a departure from the "rules of the game" as played in the last two decades. The reform era initiated by Deng Xiaoping has seen the emergence of a more legalistic exit mechanism for removing high party leaders. In contrast to the last two decades of Mao's leadership, when purged leaders were subjected to long ideologically framed campaigns of media denunciation and became political non-persons, fallen leaders in the reform era have been portrayed in the media as having been removed through routine party procedures for political mistakes and, in some cases where crimes were committed, through legal processes.
Of course, Mr. Bo's removal under the rules of the game does not make his fall any less political, and here again there are parallels with the two Chens. The purge of each man removed an obstacle or irritant to the top leadership at an important moment of transition. Chen Xitong's removal in 1995 complemented other steps by Jiang Zemin to consolidate power, in that case by crushing an important bastion of conservative resistance—the Beijing City party committee. And Chen Liangyu's elimination in 2006 removed an outspoken critic—from Shanghai, a major power in China's economy—of Premier Wen Jiabao's effort to recentralize the direction of national economic policy.
Mr. Chen's purge helped break the back of the so-called Shanghai Gang associated with retired top leader Jiang Zemin as Hu Jintao moved to consolidate power at the 2007 17th Party Congress. In much the same fashion, Bo Xilai's removal takes down a potential adversary in elite politics on the eve of the 18th Congress.
Ms. Miller is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. This article is adapted from a longer paper in the China Leadership Monitor.