BEIJING // A wiretapping operation set up on the orders of the former provincial Communist Party chief Bo Xilai eavesdropped on a telephone conversation involving the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, according to reports.
It is the latest revelation to emerge since Mr Bo, once thought likely to enter China's inner governing circle, was stripped of his job as the Chongqing party boss and later removed from the politburo.
According to the New York Times, Mr Bo and his former police chief, Wang Lijun, set up the sophisticated surveillance operation as part of their "smash the black" crackdown on organised crime in Chongqing municipality.
Such was its reach that when the anti-corruption official Ma Wen, China's minister of supervision, telephoned Mr Hu while visiting Chongqing in August, the call was intercepted.
That Mr Bo apparently eavesdropped on top officials illustrates the "trust deficit between the elites in China", said Bo Zhiyue, author of China's Elite Politics.
"They don't have enough trust so they use these devices to hear private conversations," he said, adding that Mr Bo appeared to want to confirm officials "meant what they said" when they complimented him in public.
Anti-bugging devices used by the central authorities reportedly detected the surveillance, which led the Communist Party disciplinary watchdog to investigate activities in Chongqing, resulting in Mr Bo's downfall.
The party has publicly accused Mr Bo of "serious discipline violations", while his wife, Gu Kailai, is under arrest over her alleged involvement in the death of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, whose body was found in a Chongqing hotel room in November.
Analysts have typically cast Mr Bo's downfall as stemming from a power struggle between liberal party factions and hard-left elements, such as Mr Bo, that favour greater state control of the economy.
The 62-year-old's brazen bid for a place on the ruling nine-strong politburo standing committee through his high-profile organised crime crackdown and Communist Party nostalgia campaign is also believed to have unnerved the central authorities.
The New York Times' revelations suggest an additional, or alternative, reason China's leadership purged one of the country's most charismatic officials.
The newspaper said nearly a dozen officials with close party ties confirmed the wiretapping operation existed, and one analyst claimed Mr Bo had tried to monitor conversations involving other senior officials who visited Chongqing. According to Reuters, Mr Bo claimed the call to Mr Hu was intercepted by mistake.
A series of teams from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection were subsequently dispatched to Chongqing, although reports say their work was made harder because the bugging operation allowed them to be monitored too.
While Mr Bo is said to have provided little support for Mr Wang when the central authorities accused the police chief of wrongdoing over the wiretapping and other issues, the two men are said to have also fallen out because Mr Wang arranged for Mr Bo and his wife to be wiretapped.
"Some people started to investigate Wang Lijun. [Bo Xilai] said it's your own business, I'm not in a position to protect you. Maybe that was the beginning of the [break-up] of the relationship between the two," suggested Bo Zhiyue.
In February Mr Wang fled to the US consulate in Chengdu, levelling allegations against Mr Bo and his wife over the death of Mr Heywood and the investigation into the alleged killing.
Mr Wang later left the consulate, turning himself in to the Beijing authorities.
Mr Bo has not been seen publicly since his removal in March as Chongqing party boss, while his wife remains under arrest.
Yesterday it was announced that Mr Bo's brother, Bo Xiyong, also known as Li Xueming, had resigned as a director of China Everbright International amid concern the scandal could affect the Hong Kong company.