In China's precarious power pyramid, it takes only a few missteps to end up like sidelined stars Bo Xilai, Zhu Xiaohua and Wang Zhaoguo. Each lost his footing on the way to the top and learned lessons that current aspirants Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and Zeng Qinghong would do well to heed.For a while, Bo seemed destined for a career worthy of his privileged pedigree. The photogenic son of veteran Communist Party ideologue Bo Yibo became mayor of Dalian in 1993 and transformed that port city into a graft- and grit-free haven. The cognoscenti whispered in 1998 that Bo was headed for a big job in Beijing, perhaps trade minister. But he was abruptly grounded last year when his expected promotion to the Central Committee was rejected. Beijing is increasingly suspicious of princelings, says Wang Shao-guang, professor of political science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Bo didn't help matters by sanctioning a fawning biography, spurring speculation that he was trying to establish a personality cult. He made some serious enemies, says Joseph Cheng, professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong. Still, Bo's attention-seeking ways may not have torpedoed his career: after his Central Committee snub, he secured a promotion to Dalian party chief last month, perhaps signaling a comeback.
Zhu Xiaohua has suffered less from overweening ambition than from misplaced allegiance--as well as some ugly rumors. When his patron Premier Zhu Rongji (no relation) was flying high, the aggressive underling soared alongside, serving as a deputy central-bank governor before landing a plush job in Hong Kong as head of financial conglomerate China Everbright. But with the Prime Minister's reform agenda stalled by conservatives and his bid for World Trade Organization membership mousetrapped by Washington, his protégé's hopes for a top economic posting waned. To make matters worse, Zhu Xiaohua was abruptly recalled to Beijing in July, allegedly in connection with financial misconduct. If corruption is involved, his mentor can't offer much help. Zhu Rongji doesn't have the clout to push himself, much less his followers, says Rafael Wu, an economist at Warburg Dillon Read in Hong Kong.
Even a powerful patron couldn't save Wang Zhaoguo from stagnation. Plucked from obscurity at a Hubei car factory by Deng Xiaoping in 1980, Wang zipped up the party ranks, becoming head of the United Front Work Department in 1992-a job that made him point man for overseas Chinese affairs. Yet Wang's staid personality has undermined his ambitions. Says a Peking University lecturer: He simply did not have the charisma and solid record to go further. In a humiliating blow, Wang has been overtaken by his ex-sidekick Hu Jintao in the Communist Party hierarchy. His most recent lateral promotion was to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee, a toothless group largely comprising fossilized non-communists.
Still, writing off Bo, Zhu and Wang may be premature. At 50, 50 and 58, respectively, they have a key asset: relative youth. Antiquarian leaders may define this century, but the fallen trio will have plenty of time to scheme their resurgence in the next one. After all, Deng was thrice exiled before he finally emerged at the top.
With reporting by Jaime A. FlorCruz/Beijing