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.
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.