BEIJING -- A power struggle within the Communist Party for control of China claimed its first high-level victim yesterday, as the hard-line party boss of Beijing, Chen Xitong, resigned his post.
The resignation, confirmed early today by the official Xinhua news agency, exposed fighting within the party over who will run China now that the No. 1 leader, Deng Xiaoping, is ailing and apparently no longer involved in the day-to-day affairs of government.
The infighting has already led to the suicide of the capital's vice mayor and to numerous arrests, leaving the country's leadership more divided than at any time since public protests against the government led to a huge purge in 1989.
The resignation of Mr. Chen, the ninth-ranking party member, would seem to be a victory for Jiang Zemin, the man tapped to succeed the ailing Mr. Deng. But Mr. Chen is to be replaced by a close associate of Mr. Jiang's strongest challenger -- a sign that opposition to Mr. Jiang is gathering strength.
"This is about national politics, not municipal politics," said David Shambaugh, professor of Chinese politics at the University of London. "This has to do with the succession struggle. It is now very open."
Nominally, the issue that forced Mr. Chen to resign was local corruption; officials in Beijing are being accused of profiting from land speculation. As China's economy has taken off, land prices have increased astronomically in the capital, a city of 11 million people, drawing foreign investors and providing corrupt officials unparalleled opportunities to make money. The most blatantly improper project involved an office and shopping complex near the Forbidden City, one that violated numerous building codes and that now is on hold.
It was to take responsibility for the tangle of illegal developments that Mr. Chen, 65, resigned as party secretary of the Communist Party's Beijing branch, according to the Xinhua report. The report said Mr. Chen resigned because he had "unshirkable responsibilities" for the April 4 suicide of Vice Mayor Wang Baosen, under investigation for corruption.
The terse Xinhua report noted that "Wang's case is under investigation," a phrase that will fuel speculation that Mr. Wang may have been murdered to cover up corruption at higher levels of the government.
Mr. Chen was widely unpopular for his key role in the bloody crushing of student-led protests in 1989, and his fate is still unclear. He could face criminal charges and could be forced off his seat on the Politburo, the 20-member committee that runs China and where Mr. Chen holds the No. 9 position.
Mr. Chen was vulnerable to attack because he had recently been stripped of important allies. And the corruption in Beijing was probably only a pretext for his resignation.
He appears to be a victim of efforts by Mr. Jiang to shore up his position as heir apparent to Mr. Deng, who has not been seen in public for months. For weeks, Mr. Jiang had undermined Mr. Chen, arresting at least 30 of his supporters and making him a virtual nonentity in the state-controlled media.
Meanwhile, Mr. Jiang has been building his own base of support in the party, hoping to make himself unassailable by the time Mr. Deng dies. Mr. Jiang has had few allies in the powerful Beijing city government, so the attacks on Beijing officials were seen as a way for him to eliminate potential enemies.
But Mr. Jiang may find another enemy in Mr. Chen's successor.
Mr. Chen is being replaced by Wei Jianxing, 64, who is another Politburo member and also an ally of Qiao Shi. Mr. Qiao is head of China's parliament, the National People's Congress, and is viewed as a challenger to Mr. Jiang.
Mr. Wei is responsible for the party's anti-corruption efforts. He has worked closely with Mr. Jiang in recent campaigns to reduce the Communist Party's endemic corruption, but his ties with Mr. Qiao are much stronger.
Mr. Qiao has carved out a niche for himself as the champion of China's parliament, which used to be a purely rubber-stamp body reflecting the wishes of the party. Earlier this year, the parliament humiliated two of Mr. Jiang's proteges in confirmation votes; the two were eventually confirmed.
"The biggest risk for Jiang all along has been that he's overstretched himself," said Liu Ren-Kai of the Institute for Asian Studies in Hamburg, Germany. "Now we may be seeing the result of this. The succession battle is heating up."