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.
The outlook for broader political reform is another matter. Though Chinese leaders in recent decades have thrown much of Marx and Mao overboard, they cling tightly to Lenin. There’s no chance that the one-party system will be abandoned or revised in any basic way; the most that can be expected is permitting more than one candidate to run for some offices in key intraparty elections, with perhaps more advance consultation before candidates are chosen. Somewhat more open voting at local government levels may also be allowed, as already occurs occasionally. Above all, however, those in charge want their successors to be people like themselves. That helps explain why they moved so quickly against a pushy upstart like Bo Xilai when the chance arose.
This doesn’t address the corruption and guanxi issues that enrage so many ordinary citizens, especially educated young people who believe these limit their own career opportunities. From President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jibao on down, Chinese leaders for years have promised important reforms but not delivered much. That’s because major changes could undermine the personal interests of senior officials and their allies and even weaken the party’s grip. How much longer the leaders can resist doing something of greater substance is the main question left dangling by the Bo Xilai case.
Robert Keatley is a former editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal and the South China Morning Post, both of Hong Kong.