Lintao Zhang / Getty Images
Bo Xilai attends the closing session of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference at the Great Hall of the People on Tuesday in Beijing, China.
BEIJING -- Ambitious Chinese Communist Party leadership contender Bo Xilai has been sacked from his post as head of the city of Chongqing in a dramatic move that exposes growing ideological divisions just as a new generation readies to take power.
His abrupt downfall, announced on Thursday by the official Xinhua news agency, threatens to kindle tension between his supporters, who favor a more traditional, state-dominated version of socialism, and liberal critics, who saw him as a dangerous opportunist.
Bo was removed as party boss of Chongqing, a sprawling urban region in the southwest, a day after being rebuked by Premier Wen Jiabao in a news conference broadcast across the country.
In his remarks Wednesday, Wen warned against a repeat of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, NBC News correspondent Eric Baculinao in Beijing reported.
The comments were seen as a veiled attack on Bo, who has advocated a revival of cultural-revolution-style "red culture" movement, Baculinao said.
The telegenic Bo had been a strong contender for top leadership, but his career prospects came under intense speculation after Vice Mayor Wang Lijun, his longtime police chief, went to ground in February in the U.S. consulate in nearby Chengdu until he was coaxed out and placed under investigation.
In a separate statement, Xinhua said Wang had also been removed from his post. It gave no other details.
Xinhua said Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang would replace Bo.
While Bo might be kept on in some role until the Communist Party leadership succession later this year, his hopes for promotion to a top job were finished, said Chen Ziming, an independent scholar in Beijing who follows party politics.
"Now it looks like Wen Jiabao's comments yesterday represented the leadership's collective view that Bo needed to go," said Chen, referring to the Chinese premier's rebuke of Bo.
"This will affect the leadership politics for the 18th Congress, because this opens up new uncertainties about who is in contention," said Chen.
The 18th Party Congress late this year will see China's biggest leadership transition in nearly a decade, with Party Chief Hu Jintao and other elders due to retire and hand power to a younger generation headed by Vice President Xi Jinping.
Flight to U.S. mission
Bo's dramatic spiral from a confident defense of his policies at a news conference last week to ignominious dismissal this week has come while central authorities push forward with an investigation into Wang's flight to the U.S. mission, and also after some central leaders, including the domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang, appeared to give Bo some public backing.
Last week Bo reportedly addressed the Wang incident after a long silence, the BBC reported.
"I feel like I put my trust in the wrong person," he said, explaining that it surprised him and came suddenly.
Bo has plenty of fans in China, attracted to the idea of a "Chongqing model" of development that promises greater social equality. They are likely to be riled by his removal.
"The removal of Bo Xilai is a real shock to me. We don't know whether it's because of his personal errors or is an attack on the Chongqing model," said Sima Nan, a leftist writer and broadcaster in Beijing who has praised Bo.
"If this amounts to a negation of the Chongqing model, then I can't agree with this decision."
Three sources with direct ties to Chongqing government officials said Bo's removal was announced on Thursday morning at a meeting in the city. They all spoke on condition of anonymity to protect themselves and their sources.
"The fact that the Xinhua announcement did not stress that Bo will be placed in another post means that he's probably going to be put under investigation, and there won't be any conclusion on his future until the end of that investigation," said one of the sources, a journalist with wide-ranging contacts among central officials.
Calls to two Chongqing city government officials for comment were not returned.
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NBC News, msnbc.com staff and Reuters contributed to this report.