Ian Johnson

Bo Xilai, the mercurial leader of the city-state of Chongqing—roughly the size of Austria, but with a population of 30 million, nearly four times as large—was forced to step down on Thursday. Just a few months ago, commentators were saying that Bo was a serious candidate for the nine-member Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo, the apogee of power. Suddenly, he had vanished from the heavens. How did this happen and what does it mean?

The answer is rooted in a constellation of powerful families who helped the communists win power in the 1940s and are trying to align their interests before the next great congress begins this fall.