For the past five years, his base has been Chongqing in central China, an urban sprawl of 30 million people where as party leader he was the ultimate authority. He is charismatic by Chinese standards, and his style gained him much local approval as his “smash the black” campaign crushed criminal gangs while populist programs raised living standards. He also revived aspects of the Cultural Revolution by staging mass singing of “Red songs," music from Maoist campaigns of the 1960s (even though he and his own family had suffered grievously at the time). His nationalistic tactics included aid for local retailers by punishing their Walmart rivals. Bo promoted his policies as an alternative to the center’s stodgier development plans as he pushed for higher office. Then, it all came crashing down.
Little noticed last November was the death of a British business consultant named Neil Heywood at a city-owned hotel. He had been summoned from his Beijing home by the Bo family; he had years of financial dealings with Gu Kaili, Bo’s wife, a corporate lawyer who once won a case in Alabama and wrote a book about it. Heywood also helped Bo’s son enter Britain’s prestigious Harrow school and Oxford University (despite a reputation there as a free-spending “champagne Charlie," the son is now at Harvard). Heywood’s death was ruled due to alcohol poisoning, though friends called him a light drinker, and his body was quickly cremated without an autopsy.
Some of Heywood’s friends doubted the story. But nothing surfaced before late January, when Bo suddenly removed his longtime close aide Wang Lijun, leader of the ferocious “smash the black” campaign, from his post as police chief for unstated reasons. Days later, Wang arrived unannounced at the closest U.S. consulate, two hundred miles away in Chengdu, apparently seeking refuge from Bo’s heavies, who quickly surrounded the consulate. After thirty hours, Wang left the American office in the custody of officers from the central government. He was flown to Beijing and hasn’t been seen since. He may be charged with treason for telling the Americans too much about both Bo’s ambitions and divisions within the Chinese leadership. Soon after, Bo was fired from his Chongqing role as party secretary.
Several sources suggest Wang investigated the Heywood death, concluded that Gu Kaili and a member of her household staff poisoned him and told Bo as much. The alleged motive: Heywood demanded a larger payoff than previously agreed to for helping Gu smuggle illicit funds overseas, and threatened to report her to higher authorities unless she paid up. That report cost Wang his job and soon after caused his flight to Chengdu; whether he sought asylum remains unclear. Meantime, assorted reports now contend the anti-gangster campaign he directed on Bo’s behalf included shakedowns of legitimate businessmen, jailing lawyers who tried to defend them and widespread use of arbitrary arrest and torture. Moreover, it appears that the Bos, man and wife, secretly had been collecting corrupt payoffs for years, which may explain why their son could afford fancy foreign schools, sports cars and the high life. Beijing has sent investigators to Hong Kong to probe the family’s investments there, which involve siblings of both husband and wife working under assumed names.
What happens next remains uncertain. But lawyer Gu seems certain to face murder charges and the death penalty, a sentence not always imposed. Bo will be formally expelled from his party posts and membership at a forthcoming Central Committee meeting and probably will face criminal charges. The son isn’t likely to return home anytime soon. Police chief Wang probably will be prosecuted, though he may get a reduced sentence for testifying against his former boss.
Meantime, many Bo subordinates and allies have been purged from office. And a senior Politburo Standing Committee member—who heads the nation’s security apparatus—is said to be in trouble for defending Bo. However, he is seventy-two years old and may be allowed to retire later this year as previously scheduled, thus containing adverse publicity about the Communist Party. The rulers clearly want to define the case as an aberration and not one related to internal flaws of the ruling system, which it is.