BEIJING—Yan Weilan combs through the Internet each day for any fresh news or rumors on China’s rumbling political scandal that might have slipped past the country’s hawk-like censors.
The affair, which has toppled a high-flying politician amid allegations of corruption and murder, marks the first time many Chinese have seen a political drama involving the elite play out publicly in their lifetimes.
Despite a government push to throttle media and Internet discussion, China’s most taboo subject is one of its most talked-about among ordinary Chinese, who debate its portent with a mix of fascination and outrage.
“We haven’t seen anything like this. I look every day, especially for any of the foreign media reports,” said Yan, 29, an insurance industry worker whose sister in the United States emails her news from Western outlets on the affair.
In China’s biggest political drama in decades, Bo Xilai — a charismatic rising star among the country’s technocratic leaders — was sacked as leader of the Chongqing megacity in March and then suspended from the Communist Party’s powerful Politburo.
He had been destined for the highest echelons of power and the scandal — replete with allegations of corruption, luxurious lifestyles and the death of a British businessman — has read like a Hollywood drama.
It burst into the open in February when Bo’s right-hand man Wang Lijun fled in fear to a US consulate, reportedly demanding asylum and handing over dirt on his former boss.
Bo’s successful lawyer wife Gu Kailai has subsequently been implicated in the death of a British business associate, Neil Heywood, according to state media, which said an investigation is under way.
Feeding the titillation has been online rumors of illegitimate children fathered by Bo, a conspiracy to halt his rise, even his use of aphrodisiacs to seduce young women and other conjecture.
But university student Wang Bao said there is widespread distrust among many ordinary Chinese over the official push to vilify Bo, especially amid political jockeying ahead of a once-a-decade leadership shift later this year.
“I don’t trust any of what I hear. There is a lot of talk among people about accusations being made against Bo and his wife but how can we know if anything is true?” he said.
He added the affair had only underlined the impotence of ordinary Chinese and the immense gulf between them and the country’s rulers, a view leaders have struggled to deflect amid regular reports of corruption and high-handedness by officials.
“There are all these things happening up here and we are down here,” Wang said, holding his hand up above his head and then lowering it to his knees.
“They are in the sky and we are the serfs. What power do we have?”
The image-conscious central government has shut down dozens of websites, deleted hundreds of thousands of microblog posts and even detained people for spreading false information. But online speculation has continued to pour out.
Analysts say the case has upset the ruling Communist party’s outwardly monolithic image, exposing a rift between an ascendant reformist faction and an old guard favoring a tighter grip on society and the economy.
Bo, who during his time in Chongqing organized the mass singing of Communist-era songs and is the son of a revered Communist revolutionary, is seen to be from the latter.
“I think there could be more (political) fighting coming. The tree wants to stand still but the wind won’t stop,” said businessman Li De, 44, using a Chinese proverb to describe forces beyond one’s control.
“There is a possibility of that,” he said as he struck up a conversation with an AFP reporter on the topic that is preoccupying many.
“But what can we (ordinary people) do? We can only watch,” he added, saying most Chinese feel the stability-conscious government will prevent the issue escalating into a full-blown factional crisis.
But people like Yan, who professes no real interest in politics, are anticipating even more salacious details to emerge from an ongoing investigation.
“We don’t have this type of thing in China usually. It usually happens in the West,” she said.