This was to be a year of tidy political theatre for the Chinese Communist Party, capped by the scripted handoff of power from nine senior apparatchiks to a new generation. One day this fall, the incoming cast would stride across the stage of the Great Hall of the People, politely clapping for one another, in front of a sixty-foot painting of the Great Wall.
But the plot began to unravel on February 6th, when a frantic Party official named Wang Lijun, a former chief of police—once hailed in the press for perfecting the transplanting of organs from executed prisoners—fled by car from his city, Chongqing, to the United States consulate in Chengdu. As Chinese security forces gathered outside the consulate, demanding that he come out, Wang sought political asylum. He told the Americans that he had uncovered the murder of a British businessman in Chongqing named Neil Heywood, a forty-one-year-old man of pale linen suits and a guarded manner, a “character in a Graham Greene novel—always immaculate, very noble, very erudite,” as a friend of Heywood’s recalled in the Daily Telegraph. Heywood had worked part time for a corporate intelligence firm founded by former M.I.6 officers, and he drove a Jaguar with the license plate 007, but friends considered him more Walter Mitty than James Bond. His body was discovered last November, in a shabby room in a mountaintop hotel. Police initially ascribed the death to alcohol, but Wang concluded that Heywood had been poisoned, and put the blame on the family of Bo Xilai—his boss—the sixty-two-year-old Party Secretary of Chongqing, who was, until that instant, a leading contender to mount the stage this fall at the Great Hall of the People. (Wang was not granted asylum, and disappeared into Chinese custody.)
On April 10th, the government suspended Bo from the Politburo, amid an investigation of “serious discipline violations.” Although the violations weren’t specified, Bo had alienated Party leaders by reviving Maoism in Chongqing, marshalling its citizens into “Red Song” renditions of “Unity Is Power” and “Revolutionaries Are Forever Young.” With the help of Wang, his eventual betrayer, he had rounded up thousands of lawyers, tycoons, and alleged criminals, in a campaign of arrests and torture that he called Smash Black.
The government also detained Bo’s wife, the glamorous lawyer Gu Kailai—“the Jackie Kennedy of China,” as one American colleague called her—on suspicion of involvement in Heywood’s murder. The motive? Among the theories, Reuters cited sources who say that Gu asked Heywood “to move a large sum of money abroad,” and she “became outraged when he demanded a larger cut.” Heywood, it seems, had helped the family for years, as a foreign “fixer,” massaging its encounters with an unfamiliar new world. He told friends that he had helped Bo’s son, Guagua, get into Harrow, for a proper English education. The young man went on to Balliol College, Oxford, where he appeared in boozy party photos that circulated online. At the time of his parents’ detention, he was at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In Cambridge, he drove a Porsche; in Beijing, he drove a red Ferrari.
The tale reads like a primer on the rise of Chinese oligarchs, but it is so baroque in its particulars that its closest precedent is in fiction. The Broadway hit “Chinglish,” by David Henry Hwang, centers on a Chinese official who has been arrested on corruption charges, and features a British consultant who arranges for the son of a Party boss to be admitted to an English university. When Hwang’s earlier play “M. Butterfly” opened, in 1988, it captured the shadow of the West over Asia. By the time Hwang was writing “Chinglish,” as he put it recently in Newsweek, the roles had reversed, and he set out to capture how “recession-battered Westerners seeking a foothold in booming China must assimilate to its customs and ways of doing business.”
In that respect, the Bo case may dampen Western analysts’ infatuation with Chinese state capitalism. The gap between rich and poor has become so inflammatory and unsustainable that the Chinese government has simply stopped releasing an official measure of the distribution of wealth. (Unofficial studies now put China’s inequality beyond the point that a former Prime Minister once estimated would trigger social unrest.) Bo Xilai made his name channelling Mao’s call for social equity, but Bloomberg has discovered that Gu Kailai’s siblings control businesses worth at least a hundred and twenty-six million dollars. The Chinese journalist Jiang Weiping, who spent five years in prison for reporting on Bo family corruption, told NPR last week, “I think it’s an extremely conservative guess to say he had one hundred mistresses.”
And yet Bo Xilai’s most vexing legacy for the Party may be not that he was hated but, rather, that he was loved. His élite peers came to despise him for his Western-style grandstanding, his family’s indiscretion, and his homage to the Cultural Revolution. But disenfranchised citizens hearkened to his rhetoric on behalf of the poor and to his investments in public housing. His exposure threatened the Party’s legitimacy.
The Bo situation has been compared to the Tiananmen Square crisis. As in 1989, it unfolds, to some degree, amid a contest of ideas about China’s economic future, pitting Bo’s determination to fortify state-owned enterprises and state investment against the resolve of those who see the need for change. But Bo did not fall because of his ideas; he fell because of his use of money and force and fear.
In surgically removing Bo from Chinese politics, the Party was humiliated but also, one senses, energized. After Bo’s dismissal, China’s cabinet, in the name of reducing corruption, ordered ministries and local governments to disclose more detail on public spending and affordable-housing construction. Optimists inside and outside the country have begun discussing the transformative potential of unexpected events. Cheng Li, of the Brookings Institution, believes that the Bo Xilai case will be “a curse if the Party pretends that its rule can remain as before, but a blessing if the Party decides to transform itself.”
The cost of transformation, however, would be measured in power—the interests threatened by curtailing corruption, the money that must be siphoned away in order to balance the economy, the privileges that would vanish in the glare of transparency. For now, the streets are quiet, because one thing that all factions of the Party agree on is that they could lose everything if the Bo Xilai case opens a wider schism. But do they recognize the longer-term problem: that their refusal to share the affairs of state with their own people is the greatest peril of all? ♦
Hat tip to Kaiser Kuo for finding this article. Great read