breadcrumb

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions

The Chinese Communist Party has always put great emphasis on smooth surfaces, maintaining political “face” through a decorous exterior. Men at the top dye their hair black and every strand must be in place. But sometimes there are cracks in the smoothness and outsiders are given a glimpse into the mafia-like world that lies behind it.

On July 26, China’s Xinhua News Agency reported that Bogu Kailai and her personal assistant had been charged with murder. Since Bogu Kailai is the wife of Bo Xilai, a Communist Party “princeling,” the son of one of Mao Zedong’s closest associates and, until recently, a rising star in the CCP firmament, and since the murder victim is a British national, Neil Heywood, the word “embarrassment” has been used in press reports around the world. But I doubt that anything as mild as embarrassment is what fills the minds of Party leaders in Beijing. Much more is at stake.

Over the past year Bo Xilai has rocked their system and it is still wobbling. And the Heywood case raises far-ranging questions about China’s governing system. In recent days I have called some Chinese friends, well-known critics of the regime, to hear their take on the situation. Some of them live in exile and others live in China, where I reach them by Skype. I turn to these people because they are ones who have paid a price—or made it clear they are willing to pay a price—to say exactly what they think. Still, in what follows, I attach names only to opinions that they have already published elsewhere.

Su Xiaokang, the distinguished writer who lives in exile in Delaware, was not alone in beginning with the problem of the “black box.” In looking into such a secretive political system, an analyst’s first job must be to separate what is known from what has to be guessed at. What we know is little more than these points:

• For about five years, Bo Xilai, mayor of Chongqing, a city of more than 30 million, had been manipulating nostalgia for Mao as a means to convert popular resentment of corruption into political capital; Bo was widely believed to covet a place on China’s elite Standing Committee of the Politburo. At the same time, Bo and his wife have accumulated vast wealth, some of it apparently from gifts from entrepreneurs during the 1990s construction boom in Dalian, the city in eastern China where Bo was mayor for eight years, and some from “anti-corruption” campaigns in Chongqing, in which Bo and his police seized the funds of “corrupt” enterprises but not all the seized funds, apparently, reached the public till.

• On November 14, 2011, Neil Heywood, a British national working in China who was believed to have been a close advisor to Bo’s family, was found dead in the Nanshan Lijing Holiday Hotel in Chongqing.

• On February 2, Wang Lijun, who had been Bo’s police chief in Chongqing (and who had worked for him in Dalian as well, since 1992), was abruptly relieved of that post. Four days later he sought protection at the US Consulate in Chengdu, 200 miles away, reportedly offering information to US officials on the alleged murder of Heywood (and other matters?). The Americans shared information with the British and later released Wang to Chinese custody.

• On April 10 the CCP Central Committee announced that Bo was under investigation for “serious discipline violations” and had been removed from the CCP Central Committee.

• On July 26 came the official announcement that Bo’s wife was being charged with Heywood’s murder, saying “the evidence is irrefutable and substantial.”

Beyond these few facts, the black-box mysteries are many. Some of the questions my friends asked were:

Did she really do it? “China’s justice system is the fairest in the world,” quipped one. “They don’t even arrest you unless they know you did it.” Jiang Qisheng, who spent four years in prison for organizing a candlelight memorial for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, has published an essay in which he compares Bogu Kailai’s fate to that of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing after Mao died. Jiang puns on fazhi “rule of law” and fazhi “the law knows.” The prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang notes that Bogu has not, as far as anyone knows, been able to consult a lawyer.

What else did she do? Pu Zhiqiang argues that the Bogu case should be handed over to competent lawyers and should be tried simultaneously with the cases of Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun (both of whom are in detention and “under investigation,” but have yet to be formally charged) so that the issue of corruption can be properly addressed. A narrow focus on Bogu and the murder is “a serious dereliction of prosecutorial duty,” Pu says. He fears even that the purpose of treating Bogu separately, and on the murder charge alone, might be to execute her before she can testify about corruption.

If she did murder Heywood, why? The Xinhua announcement says Bogu was “worrying about Neil Heywood’s threat to her son’s personal security.” But with top-level political promotions and eye-popping corruption both in the background, no one I talked to took this seriously. They felt that Bogu, flush with tainted money, might have been using Heywood to launder it overseas. Maybe Heywood had wanted too much of a cut for himself. He and Bogu do seem to have quarreled about money. Maybe she came to feel that the large sums she had entrusted to Heywood were in danger. These were only guesses, but certainly better guesses than protection of the son.

What could have pushed Wang Lijun to the point of seeking refuge in a US Consulate? This was a radical step for Wang. He had been with Bo Xilai for twenty years, and had been top cop in the “strike hard” anti-corruption campaigns in Chongqing. Now, he must have feared for his life. Was he afraid that he, too, might be a target of Bogu Kailai? Or of Bo Xilai? At what point did Bo know about Heywood’s murder?

What did Wang Lijun tell the Americans, and what agreement did the Americans make with Chinese authorities when they released Wang to their custody? Normally the Communist Party completely suppresses news of murders and other “embarrassments.” The fact that it decided to make a public announcement in this case must be, at least in part, because the Americans hold information that they could, if they wanted, divulge. A well-known writer expressed frustration that the Americans have joined in the secret-keeping. “Why don’t they release what Wang Lijun told them? They don’t have to vouch for any of it—just say ‘Here’s what he told us’ and let the world decide.”

The murder case still bristles with questions, but there was considerable consensus among my friends about the ways Beijing is handling it. Bo Xilai had indeed created some “serious discipline” problems for China’s ruling system, and Bo, not his wife, was the main problem.

One of my sources quoted Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Nobel Peace laureate, who wrote in 2007 that “the power of every official at every level [in China] comes not from below, from the people, but from above, from higher levels within the structure of private authority.” Loyalty from below and protection from above are the glues that hold the whole system together, but it has one glaring weak point. Who appoints the person at the very top—where by definition there is no superior to do the appointing? In pre-modern times this function was performed by imperial seed, but in the Communist era it has caused much uncertainty and anxiety.

The distinguished novelist and blogger Wang Lixiong has written an article arguing that at the end of the 1980s Deng Xiaoping sought to solve this problem by laying down a blueprint that called for two elite groups (one originating around Jiang Zemin, the other around Hu Jintao) who would alternate holding the political center for ten year periods, with the group not in power waiting in the wings. Each group, knowing that the other would get its turn, would have an incentive to be civil. Neither would need, or should want, a charismatic leader. Bland managers like Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping (a member of the Jiang group who is set to take over in fall 2012) would be ideal candidates to sustain the system: they are interchangeable parts whose function is to serve the Communist Party elite, the large group that endures through the shifts. Whether or not every detail of Wang Lixiong’s account of the Deng blueprint is accurate, Wang’s general approach seems quite right.

Enter Bo Xilai: charismatic, ambitious, impeccable of pedigree, and wealthy—but not one of the interchangeable parts in line for the top. Bo “feels contemptuous of Hu-Wen [President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao],” said a scientist I called, “and was convinced that he should be where [heir apparent] Xi Jinping is.” This person paused a moment, then added, “And to be fair, Bo has a point. The others are mediocrities.” I asked if Bo’s Maoist “leftism” is sincere or only a way to exploit popular sentiment; Bo is known, after all, for wearing Western suits and driving Ferraris. “80% sincere,” the scientist answered. Bo’s father, Bo Yibo, was always known as a doctrinaire Maoist. “But remember, Maoism, if you are the great leader, means that you get any material privilege you want. This was true for Mao, so it is entirely Maoist for Bo to expect it to be true for Bo.”

Hu Jintao, during his ten years at the Party’s helm, has also pulled it back a bit toward Mao, whereas Jiang Zemin, Hu’s predecessor, had leaned “rightward.” When challenged by Bo Xilai, however, Hu and Jiang (who is still an important political player) share an interest in squelching Bo. Jiang wants to hold the top spot for Xi Jinping, a member of his group, and does not want to see the succession system collapse. Hu, too, has shown signs of just trying to hold things together until his term is finished at year’s end, so that any major rupture does not go down on his historical record. “Hu is playing jigu chuanhua—‘beat the drum and pass the flower,’” a professor of social sciences told me. This is a Chinese game that resembles “musical chairs.” Players pass a flower while a drum beats, and when the sound stops the one holding the flower loses. Several others, although not using this metaphor, made the same point. Western analysts who maintain that China’s authoritarian system allows rulers to plan for the long term should take note.

In any case, the men at the top seem solid in their resolve to defeat Bo, and no one I talked to doubted that the murder trial of his wife would be used to help do this. Wang Lijun and the US State Department have created a situation in which Party leaders were obliged to wash their linen in public, and that, although an embarrassment, also provided a tool for doing what they had wanted to do anyway. “In a sense the murder case was lucky for them,” commented a book dealer. “Things would have been much messier if they had had to use corruption as the issue.” Wang Lixiong, in his essay, writes that even without the murder case, Bo, for his effrontery, was doomed. But not everyone agreed with that. Most thought that if Wang Lijun had not gone to the Americans, Bo might have been able to hang on.

Is it possible, I asked, that Bo’s wife is being targeted as a scapegoat for Bo, in order to leave the way open for an eventual return by Bo? I had seen speculation of this kind in the Western press, but from my friends in Beijing heard only a contemptuous response. “When has the Communist Party ever done this?” asked an eminent historian. “When has any struggle like this ever not ended in total victory for one side and total defeat for the other?” The book dealer said, “The only question now is the length of Bo’s prison term. Nothing can free Bo short of a collapse of the whole system.”

In a larger sense, though, Bogu Kailai is still a scapegoat—not for her husband but for the whole Communist Party. By focusing all the blame on her, and “bringing her to justice,” the Party, in its tradition of maintaining decorous exteriors, can extend the fiction that everything is basically fine. We, the Party, the center of China, are fine. Shortly after Wang Lijun went to the US Consulate, a joke appeared on the Chinese Internet. Wang Lijun is an ethnic Mongolian, and Bogu Kailai is said to have permanent-resident status in Singapore. The joke said: “This whole case is about a Mongolian who ran to the Americans to expose a Singaporean who killed a Brit. Nothing to do with China.”

Topics: 
Perry Link is Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies at Princeton University and Chancellorial Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California at Riverside. He has published...

Go to the nybooks.com homepage

To subscribe, click here.

This article first appeared at the NYRBlog on August 2, 2012.

DISCUSSION

08.10.95

In China’s Gulag

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

12.19.96

The Risks of Witness

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

With this, the third book that Harry Wu has published about China’s forced-labor prison camp system, we can see that he has been moving on a discernible trajectory, one that has taken him from the world of reality to the world of appearance. In this, we might observe, he seems...

05.11.00

China’s Dirty Clean-Up

SOPHIA WOODMAN

Every year, millions of China’s poorest and most vulnerable people are arrested on the streets of the nation’s cities merely because the way they look or speak identifies them clearly as “outsiders,” not native to the city in question, or because they are mentally ill or...