China's Corruption Buster, His Harrow-Educated Playboy Son and Rumours of a Coup in Beijing

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Byline: From Simon Parry IN HONG KONG

CHINA'S leaders are facing their biggest political crisis for years as they struggle to quell rumours of an attempted coup in Beijing amid splits in the ruling elite.

Officials have cracked down on internet reports of soldiers in the streets and gunfire in the leaders' secure compound near the Forbidden City.

Although the reports are unconfirmeed, they have fuelled growing public unease over power struggles at the top of the Communist party's politburo as it prepares for a once-in-a-decade handover of power later this year.

Speculation has been rife that the country's interior minister Zhou Yongkang, said to be a rival of the outgoing premier Wen Jiabao, was arrested early last week following the rumoured coup, but on Friday state television broadcast pictures of him meeting a visiting politician.

Zhou, 69, is a close ally of anti-corruption official Bo Xilai, 62, who has not been seen in public since he was spectacularly ousted and denounced by Wen Jiabao at the annual party congress earlier this month. The dismissal of the powerful Mr Bo - who had been tipped to be a minister in the new generation of leaders in the autumn - throws the whole succession issue into turmoil and has wrecked hopes of a smooth and orderly transfer of power.

It now appears that the playboy lifestyle of Mr Bo's 24-year-old Harrow and Oxford-educated son Bo Guagua may have contributed to his downfall by stirring up resentment in China.

Bo Guagua, the most high-profile of a group of sons and daughters of Chinese leaders labelled the 'princelings' because of their hereditary wealth and hedonistic lifestyles, has a reputation for lavish spending. While studying philosophy, politics and economics at Balliol College, Oxford, he was reportedly 'rusticated' - or suspended - for failing to study hard enough.

He was described in one student magazine article as 'terminally spending' and was said to have a 'strained relationship with books'.

According to contemporaries, he once organised a Silk Road Ball at Oxford, which included a kung fu display by Shaolin temple monks from China. And he impressed fellow students by arranging for movie star Jackie Chan to deliver a lecture, and even sang on stage with him.

One contemporary, who asked not to be named, said: 'He was well known as a party boy. I remember in freshers' week he bought an enormous amount of champagne for everyone and had a huge party in his room.

'When he was rusticated, the Chinese ambassador came to Balliol with some Chinese secret service guys to say that it was embarrassing for his father.

'He was rusticated at the end of his second year and college did not give him any teaching support after that.'

Pictures of a dishevelled Bo Guagua drinking and cavorting with women have been widely circulated on websites to the bemusement of the Chinese public and the irritation of its leaders.

Nine days ago, irritated by criticism of his son's behaviour, Mr Bo insisted that he had no assets of his own and his son's education in England - which began at the age of 12 at Papplewick preparatory school in Ascot, Berkshire - had been funded by full scholarships.

He was then removed as head of the local party in the city of Chongqing, in South-West China, after his security chief attempted to defect to the USA, saying he feared for his life after apparently ordering an investigation into corruption in Mr Bo's family. …