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A Chinese Murder Mystery?

Roughly every decade, China’s political system cracks, its veil is rent, and its inner workings are laid bare. 2012, the Year of the Dragon, is turning out to be one of those periods when the country’s high priests can’t quite carry out their rituals as planned.

The disruption to China’s well-ordered political world was set off by the upcoming 18th Party Congress, when the current leaders, General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, retire and are to be replaced by Xi Jinping as head of state and the Party and Li Keqiang as premier. This will mark just the fourth handover of power since Mao Zedong seized control in 1949 and the second time in a row that it will have occurred—so far at least—peacefully.1

On the surface, the problem is simple: these top leaders discovered in February that they had a murderer in their midst. That person was Bo Xilai, a former Politburo member and Party secretary of Chongqing, whose wife, the lawyer Gu Kailai, is accused of being responsible for the killing of an Englishman, the financial consultant Neil Heywood, who was rumored, without evidence, to have helped the Bo family and others to send money out of China. He died on November 14, and it has been speculated that he had gone to Chongqing to celebrate Gu’s birthday on the following day. Just why and how he died remains a mystery, but according to the still-sketchy story,2 Bo helped his wife cover up Heywood’s murder, making him an accomplice.

Some of the official story was reassuringly familiar: Bo is a bad apple, the kind of person that every political system in the world can produce—a politician who misused his office to save a family member from the law. But this version has one major hole: Bo’s misdeeds only came out after his police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to a US consulate in February and told American diplomats that Bo had done something seriously wrong—in other words, it’s not as if the Party figured this out on its own. But once the story was out, the Party quickly removed Bo and admitted he’d engaged in bad behavior. Bo and his wife face prosecution in connection with the murder and will be punished in accordance with the law. End of story.

And yet it’s a narrative that few Chinese believe is so simple. Bo represented the Party’s left wing, which is skeptical of some of China’s reforms and wants vigorous action to counter the enormous, growing gap between rich and poor. Xi Jinping, by contrast, represents middle-of-the-road reformers who acknowledge that problems exist but offer vague, gradual solutions.

Extremely ambitious, Bo was already in the Party’s twenty-five-member Politburo and aspired to join Xi in its even more exclusive nine-member Standing Committee, which effectively rules China. Given his seniority, his influence among military leaders, and his telegenic populist appeal, he would have been a formidable voice in Xi’s new government, even if he hadn’t gotten onto the Standing Committee. His promise as a politician led some leaders, according to credible reports, to oppose his outright purge, arguing that he should have been given a face-saving retirement or ceremonial post.

These concerns explain why the Party’s main propaganda organs have been apoplectically insisting that all is well. For much of April, the front pages of the Party’s flagship People’s Daily were replete with accounts of the activities of each of the Standing Committee’s nine members. The reports seemed to be saying: see, we’re all here, all working together, and nothing is wrong. These articles have been supplemented by editorials urging Party members and military officials to be loyal to the state. The drumbeat has been so repetitive as to appear desperate—as if perhaps some in the Party aren’t listening. Naturally, Chinese with any experience reading Party newspapers pick up on these signals and can only come to one conclusion: that the Party is disunited over Bo’s ouster and faces its biggest test in years.

* * *

One shouldn’t exaggerate the depth of the problem. Some have called this the biggest political crisis in China since the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters. Technically, that might be accurate but it’s a bit like comparing this afternoon’s shower with last year’s typhoon. Back in 1989, thousands of protesters controlled the heart of Beijing, the army removed them with violence, and the Party’s general secretary was deposed. China was isolated and its entire reform program put on hold. This year’s turmoil is far milder. Xi is still on schedule to take over from Hu, and China’s policies appear unchanged.

But today’s China is also a far different place from the relatively poor, rural country of 1989, just over a decade removed from the Cultural Revolution. Back then, reformers relatively easily reestablished the Party’s legitimacy by reviving reforms and allowing the country to embark on an amazing twenty-year boom that lifted tens of millions out of poverty, created a middle class, and urbanized the country—late last year, for the first time in Chinese history, more people lived in cities than the countryside.

These changes, however, have brought new actors and new demands. People such as the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng represent a new class of Chinese who want the law to apply to all equally and are willing to challenge abusive local officials. The Party recognizes the need for the rule of law and this is why central authorities had a hard time condoning his illegal detention by local officials in Shandong province—and why the government has been in a state of confusion over whether Chen should be given a degree of freedom in China or allowed to go to the US.

For this growing number of politically conscious people, the arguments used against Bo appear questionable. Besides the more formal allegation of accessory to murder, Bo has also been criticized for corruption, trampling on civil rights to fight corruption, and glorifying the Cultural Revolution by reviving public singing of “red songs”—an attempt to restore the lost camaraderie and morale in Chinese society.

Critics of the current campaign against Bo concede that these points are valid but make a broader and more damaging argument: Bo is the rule, not the exception. Almost all of China’s top leaders have immensely rich family members; by these standards, the Bo clan hardly stands out. As for civil liberties, in late April the government’s chief law enforcement official flatly stated that the law must serve the Party’s needs. And while red songs might appear crude, the Party’s answer is hardly better: it recently launched a national campaign to revive morale by resurrecting Lei Feng, a soldier who died when hit by a truck in 1962 and was made a Communist hero of selflessness, an implausible figure widely mocked as a creation of Party propagandists.

Discussing these issues in public, however, is impossible. The Party has blocked many key search terms on social media sites and banned competing accounts. In late April, the Party’s Xinhua news agency even launched an attack on foreign media for reporting rumors about Bo, as if lèse-majesté was a crime enforceable beyond China’s borders.

To be fair, some of these foreign reports have been absurdly speculative. Articles have appeared recounting private conversations between Bo and Wang, with no explanation about how they are known. Others have suggested that Heywood was linked to Western intelligence agencies, although this was quietly dropped when it was found out that his car license plates included the numbers “007”—perhaps not exactly in keeping with his supposed MI6 connections.

The Party, however, hasn’t offered facts to back its own version of events. To date, no one has even presented evidence that Heywood was murdered. Since he was cremated shortly after his death, an autopsy appears to be out of the question, unless one was secretly conducted beforehand and soon will be revealed. As for confessions and eyewitnesses, the prevalence of torture and pressure in China’s criminal justice system means that such evidence will have to be treated cautiously.

* * *

Even if we assume that Heywood was murdered, it’s still hard to understand Bo’s role. One widespread claim is that he obstructed an investigation into Heywood’s death and perhaps even had police officers tortured to hush it up. The theory is that these efforts led to a split between Bo and Wang, leading Wang to flee to the US consulate in Chengdu and tell the world about Heywood’s death.

Yet this has not been supported by any facts. It’s also not clear why Bo and Wang would have feuded over Heywood’s death. By all accounts, Wang had willingly been Bo’s hatchet man in Chongqing for years—having criminal bosses and their government patrons arrested, tried in kangaroo courts, and executed. So why the fit of conscience? China’s police force is a tool of the Party, so it’s hard to imagine a Serpico-type cop standing up against the corruption, determined to find Heywood’s murderer. This story about Wang as an upright policeman has been pushed by his associates, such as the Chongqing intellectual Wang Kang, who also claims almost psychic knowledge of Gu and Heywood’s states of mind. But such claims should be treated skeptically until there is some clear evidence.

Of course, one can come up with other explanations. One making the rounds is that inquisitors from the Party’s powerful Central Commission of Discipline Inspection were already in Chongqing last year sniffing around hoping to find evidence to do in Bo before this year’s handover. They got word of Heywood’s death and started to pressure police chief Wang for information. Wang then went to Bo, realized that his boss was going to sacrifice him by saying he was involved in Heywood’s death, and fled to the consulate. Another possibility is that the investigators were on to Wang for his own corruption, with the same results. Or they were investigating Wang and Bo for wiretapping senior leaders who had been visiting Chongqing, and so on.3 Or perhaps investigators simply were there on a routine inspection trip. The theories abound, all united by a commonsensical understanding that the murder—if it was a murder—isn’t the whole story.

The Chinese media aimed at foreigners—the newspapers China Daily and Global Times, as well as the English-language version of the Xinhua news agency—have snorted at all of these theories, saying they are unsubstantiated rumors spread by enemies of China. The case is clear, they say: Bo was involved in a murder and must go.

Clearly Bo was a loose cannon and in any system probably would have self-destructed before he reached the top. But he did stand for something. Right now, China is about to get a new leadership team without anyone having much of an idea of what it stands for. People assume Xi is pro-reform because he led two economically liberal coastal provinces, Fujian and Zhejiang, but his main achievements seem to have been to have avoided serious scandals and not to have made too many enemies. He later held a series of inner-Party postings, especially one that made him responsible for Party personnel matters. That’s given him enormous influence inside the Party, allowing him to rise swiftly and surely without red songs and gang-smashing police chiefs.

This sort of résumé—quietly following the Party line and building up a power base in the Party—is clearly the way to the top in a one-party state. But it leaves many Chinese without any clear sense of what is to come, except more of the same.


  1. The takeover by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 was accompanied by a mini-coup in which Mao’s followers were arrested and tried. Jiang Zemin’s ascension in 1989 followed the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests and subsequent ouster of Party leader Zhao Ziyang. Jiang left on schedule in 2002, handing over to Hu and Wen.
  2. A formal statement regarding Bo’s involvement—perhaps some sort of verdict—is expected in the coming weeks.
  3. I contributed to a report on the possible wiretapping in The New York Times. See Jonathan Ansfield and Ian Johnson, “Ousted Chinese Leader Is Said to Have Spied on Other Top Officials,” April 25, 2012.
Ian Johnson is a Beijing-based writer who specializes in civil society, culture, and religion. For thirteen years, Johnson worked at The Wall Street Journal, where he was a page-one feature writer...

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This article was first published in the June 7, 2012 issue of the New York Review of Books.

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Selling Out Hong Kong

IAN BURUMA

1.And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong

IAN BURUMA

1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment

JONATHAN MIRSKY

The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special...

The Beginning of the End

IAN BURUMA

Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing...

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...

Unmasking the Monster

JONATHAN MIRSKY

In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and...

The Last Days of Hong Kong

IAN BURUMA

1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.” —Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People...

Keeping the Faith

FANG LIZHI

On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age

JONATHAN MIRSKY

Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...

The End of the Chinese Revolution

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan

NATHAN GARDELS

Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power...

Passing the Baton in Beijing

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment...

Our Mission in China

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30...

China: How Much Dissent?

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked...

Rules of the Game

JOHN GITTINGS

On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs....

Bringing Up the Red Guards

JOHN GITTINGS

Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier

JOHN GITTINGS

In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a...

A Mao for All Seasons

MARTIN BERNAL

A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “...

DISCUSSION

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...

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...

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...