The Fall of Bo Xilai

The dramatic story of China's ousted princeling reveals much about the country's deep-rooted corruption—and its aversion to reform.

The dramatic fall of Chinese Politburo member Bo Xilai is a truly Shakespearean saga of an overambitious prince, corruption, treason, murder and revenge—with even a distressed Lady Macbeth dispensing poison.

It’s a riveting tale with much still unknown. But a reluctant Beijing leadership eventually must tell more to justify its detention and presumed punishment of Bo and his wife, who is accused of murdering a British business associate with whom she apparently had illicit financial dealings. Just how much will be revealed remains to be seen, but Beijing has promised to apply vigorously its version of the rule of law to mollify an Internet-savvy public increasingly angry about favoritism, corruption and injustice involving those in high places. This case includes all those factors and has become the focus of growing nationwide resentment against China’s ruling class.

Thus the true significance of the Bo Xilai case extends far beyond its sensational facts, for it challenges the one-party system that rules the nation—and has made corruption and connections (guanxi in Chinese) integral to that rule. This has brought increasingly vocal demands for political reform, for greater transparency and accountability from the self-selected men who run China. (Few women hold high office.) The scandal also raises serious doubts about Beijing’s ability to keep resisting pressure for change. As Caixin, one of China’s blunter periodicals, has noted: “This isn’t a typical case of graft. . . . It illustrates the irrefutable truth that unchecked power leads to corruption.”

The Chinese Communist Party has led the nation to astonishing economic growth—roughly 10 percent per year for three decades—and pulled hundreds of millions above the poverty line, a feat unprecedented in history. But this process also has sloshed vast sums through the economy and given party and government officials, plus their friends and relatives in both state-controlled and private companies, endless opportunities for graft and favoritism, along with arrogance and a sense of entitlement. The income gap between the relatively few and the masses has widened steadily, and complaints about undeserved wealth and power in an opaque system have increased accordingly. Proof exists at the gambling tables in the former Portuguese colony of Macao, where the revenue already exceeds that of Las Vegas fivefold and is rising sharply. Much of the money lost (or perhaps laundered) is by corrupt mainland officials or executives of state-favored enterprises.

Beijing has put few details of the case on the record. But angry Chinese citizens, armed with the Internet and determined reporting by Western journalists, have filled in many gaps.

Bo Xilai is the son of one of the “Eight Immortals," key allies of Mao Zedong back when he defeated his Nationalist government foes and seized power. This makes him a “princeling," one of the many sons and daughters of former top leaders who have used family connections to gain special rank and privileges. By many analyses, the princelings hold four of nine seats on the ruling Politburo’s Standing Committee and lead one of the two rival factions within the Chinese Communist Party. Though descriptions can seem based on phrenology as much as fact, they appear to stand for rather egalitarian—“Leftist”—and nationalistic policies, with Bo emerging as their leader. He made his reputation as one who fought corruption and brought economic efficiency to cities and provinces under his control. Already one of twenty-five Politburo members, Bo seemed poised to move onto its key standing committee this year as China makes once-in-a-decade leadership changes in both party and government.

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.