Bo Xilai: The Last of a Nefarious Trio to Fall

By Thomas E. KelloggAugust 26, 2013

Bo Xilai: The Last of a Nefarious Trio to Fall

A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel by Wenguang Huang and Pin Ho

WANG LIJUN, a nationally-known police chief celebrated for his bare-knuckle tactics, is a very vain man. The former police chief and deputy mayor of Chongqing, a Chinese mega-city of more than 32 million, Wang had a staff of 20 whose sole job was to record, for propaganda purposes, “his most moving and breathtaking moments.” He had his speeches compiled in a book, and circulated it to his police force for close study. Though he never went to college, Wang was nonetheless obsessed with academic credentials, collecting honorary degrees and even adjunct teaching posts at universities across China. He seemed to style himself as a modern-day Thomas Jefferson, a wide-ranging intellectual whose interests extended far beyond his professional field to include calligraphy, inventing, and even fashion design.

Wang’s vanity, however, was dwarfed by his boss Bo Xilai’s lust for power. Bo’s just-completed trial for his part in a massive scandal has captured worldwide attention and may be the most important court case China has seen in more than 30 years.

Had the now-disgraced Chongqing Communist Party chief Bo been born in a democratic country, he might well have reached the very top. By all accounts, Bo was intelligent, hard working, good looking, well spoken, politically savvy and ferociously ambitious. The so-call princeling son of one of China’s founding revolutionaries, Bo matched his elite upbringing with a common-man rhetoric that won a wide audience across China. He was a Chinese George W. Bush or Al Gore, the son of a prominent father who was well-positioned to help guide his son’s rise in the crucial early years of his career.

But Bo’s privileged youth was upended by experiences the likes of which Bush and Gore never knew: when Bo was just 17, the Cultural Revolution began, and Bo jumped in with both feet, leading a group of his high school friends in a Red Guard unit that harassed and beat up perceived class enemies in front of large audiences. When Bo’s father, senior economic czar Bo Yibo, was purged, the tables were turned on Bo Xilai, and he found himself subjected to the very same struggle sessions he had put others through. He would later spend five years in a makeshift prison in Beijing, emerging from captivity in 1972. 

One wonders whether that early taste of violence shaped Bo’s worldview, and created within him a penchant for ruthlessness that both aided his rise and led to his downfall.

Wang and Bo, along with Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, are the three key players in the political scandal that rocked China in 2012. On February 6 of that year, news broke that Wang had fled Chongqing for the American Consulate in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, roughly 200 miles west of Chongqing. The story behind Wang’s flight into the arms of American diplomats was a strange and convoluted one: he had assisted in the cover-up of Gu Kailai’s murder of Englishman Neil Heywood in November 2011, and had recently disclosed Gu’s role in Heywood’s death to her husband Bo. In doing so, Wang had hoped that Bo would be forced to shield Wang against the anti-corruption investigators nipping at his heels. Instead, Bo angrily slapped Wang across the face — in front of Wang’s subordinates, no less — and dismissed the allegations against Gu as baseless. Fearing for his life, Wang rushed to the only place he knew was beyond Bo’s reach: the U.S. Consulate.  

These events are covered in detail in the breathlessly-titled A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel: Murder, Money, and an Epic Power Struggle in China, a book published this spring that is by a pair of Chinese journalists, Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang, who is also known for his work as a translator.  It is only the second English language book on the scandal (not counting Jamil Anderlini’s useful but very short e-book treatment in the Financial Times's FT Edits series). Ho and Huang’s book followed on the heels of Australian journalist John Garnaut’s excellent effort, The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo, which Maura Elizabeth Cunningham discussed in an LARB “China Blog” post, “Don’t Bet Against the House,” on January 30. 

Though A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel covers much of the same ground, it is quite different from Rise and Fall: Ho and Huang look to address gaps in the story by including — with the appropriate qualifications — elements that they cannot completely verify. Garnaut is also more interested in the long backstory of Bo Xilai’s rise to power, and the historical backdrop that led to his elevation to the Politburo, the twenty-something member committee that is the near pinnacle of power in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), just short of the Politburo Standing Committee, the seven-member body that actually runs China. Ho and Huang, on the other hand, are much more interested in Bo’s rough-and-tumble tenure in Chongqing.

Ho and Huang’s book has received renewed attention in recent weeks as the Chinese government has finally moved to put Bo on trial, roughly a year and a half after he was stripped of his Party posts, and just over a year after his wife, Gu Kailai, was given a suspended death sentence by a court in the eastern city of Hefei for Heywood’s murder. Bo’s trial began on August 21, on charges of bribery, corruption, and abuse of power, and is expected to be a very short affair: a guilty verdict is virtually assured, and even Bo’s punishment was likely decided in advance by the Chinese leadership.

Ho and Huang are at their best describing Bo Xilai’s political program for Chongqing, which formed the core of his efforts to catapult himself onto the Politburo. Bo’s masterful campaign in Chongqing is often referred to by the shorthand, “changhong, dahei,” or sing red, and smash black. The phrase was a reference to Bo’s clever use of 1960s-era Communist propaganda songs to brand his administration as faithful to the Communist Party’s founding ideals, along with his campaign, spearheaded by Wang, to crack down on organized crime in Chongqing.

What made Bo’s campaign so brilliant was that it extended well beyond propaganda sing-alongs. Immediately after taking office, Bo embarked on an ambitious and hugely expensive agenda of improving access to housing, education, and health care for Chongqing’s middle- and working-class families. Bo also engaged in a wide-ranging city beautification campaign, opening new public parks and planting hundreds of new trees across the metropolis. In order to pay for his programs, Bo ran up huge annual deficits: the city’s fiscal deficit for 2011 was well over 100 billion yuan ($16 billion), according to government statistics. He also made effective use of the assets seized by Chongqing police during their anti-mob crackdown, so much so that some began to wonder whether Bo viewed his moves against the mafia as a fundraising tool.

Bo’s free spending on social services won him many admirers, both in Chongqing and across China. In the view of many leftist academics, Bo was pioneering a new model of public administration, one that was more in line with the Party’s founding values. And to the people of Chongqing, Bo not only broke the back of the mafia, but also gave them better schools, better hospitals, and better homes, seemingly at no cost to themselves.

Given the lack of transparency in public accounting in China, it is impossible to know how, or even whether, Bo’s administration in Chongqing was able to afford its massive investments in public goods. And no doubt much of the public was unaware that the anti-mafia campaign left in its wake an unprecedented wave of human rights abuses against the alleged mafia members and corrupt government officials who were its main targets. Ho and Huang refer to an in-depth study of the anti-mafia campaign by Shanghai-based legal academic Tong Zhiwei, who concluded that the Chongqing authorities regularly violated the rights of those accused of mafia-related crimes, and did not hesitate to torture suspects in order to secure confessions.  Over the course of the campaign, thousands of people were arrested, a handful executed. 

But the most interesting element of  Ho and Huang’s book is the window that it provides into the day-to-day political culture of the People’s Republic. Ho and Huang repeatedly emphasize that corruption is rampant at all levels of government, and is facilitated by close, symbiotic relationships between bureaucrats and businessmen. The sums that high-level politicians are able to accumulate are mind-boggling: official sources estimated Bo’s ill-gotten gains at $26 million, a figure that was seen by most observers as an improbably low sum put forward by the Party to mask the embarrassment that would be caused by disclosing the true scope of his ill-gotten gains. Ho and Huang suggest that some officials, Bo included, have made off with sums that run into the billions. (By contrast, in 2005, in what is believed to be one of the largest corruption cases in US history, San Diego Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham admitted to taking roughly $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors in exchange for steering government contracts their way.)

Given such high stakes, it should not be surprising that Chinese politics is such a brutal game. Ho and Huang’s account is replete with accounts of shifting alliances, backstabbing, and political infighting. Because there are almost no legal constraints on behavior, and because widespread corruption means that anyone is vulnerable, officials can often be cutthroat in their efforts to take down political rivals. Take the case of Wang Lijun’s predecessor as Chongqing deputy police chief, Wen Qiang.

It was perhaps inevitable that Wang and Wen, who was head of the city justice bureau at the time of his arrest in 2009, would come into conflict. As an old Chinese aphorism has it, “two tigers cannot co-exist on one mountain.” To be sure, Wen was almost certainly corrupt: he was known for his close ties to Chongqing’s powerful local mafia, and a search of his home after his arrest allegedly turned up a plastic bag with 20 million yuan (over $3 million) buried under a pond in Wen’s back yard. (The discovery of the bag of cash was later disputed by officials who took part in the raid on Wen’s home.)

But the political motivations for Wang to pursue Wen were equally clear: Wen might well be expected to limit Wang’s authority over Chongqing’s security apparatus, and would likely block Wang’s efforts to place as many of his own men inside the ranks of the Chongqing police as possible. As a holdover from the prior administration, Wen also had no particular loyalties to Bo, and was said to have ignored Bo’s mandates more than once. Wen was also friends with other senior officials who had crossed Bo in the past. For Wang, bringing Wen down would be killing two birds with one stone: it would both allow him to curry favor with his patron Bo and also remove a serious impediment to his own efforts to deepen his hold over the Chongqing police.

With such potential benefits on the table, Wang had good reason to make use of the various extra-legal and highly coercive tactics at his disposal to get Wen. Both Wen and members of his family were publicly smeared in the media, and Wen’s son was detained for nearly a year in order to force him to cooperate. Wen himself was tortured, and the handling of his case was marred by procedural irregularities. Arrested in September 2009, Wen was tried and convicted in record time, and executed by lethal injection in July 2010. Less than a year had passed between his initial arrest and his execution.

Ho and Huang make much of the parallels between Wang and Wen: both were extremely ambitious men who were willing to make maximum use of the police bureaucracy for their own ends, and both cared little for the basic rights protections found in Chinese criminal law. Wen himself saw one additional parallel between himself and the man who brought him down. In their last conversation, just before he was executed, Wen apparently warned Wang, “You’ll meet the same fate as me.”

And indeed Wen was right, up to a point. In seeking refuge inside the US Consulate in February 2012, Wang dodged what he saw as almost certain death. But the international incident he created ensured his former patron’s downfall as well as his own. In September 2012, Wang was tried on a range of charges, including defection, bribe-taking, and abuse of power, and was sentenced to fifteen years. Gu Kailai, the woman Wang had initially shielded from investigation, was given a suspended death sentence — usually commuted to life in prison — for Neil Heywood’s murder in August 2012.

As for Bo himself, he managed, miraculously, to hold on for more than a month after the scandal broke. It was only after the outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao publicly excoriated him at the end of the annual National People’s Congress meeting in March 2012 that it became clear that Bo’s days were numbered. The day after Wen’s comments, Bo was stripped of his position as Party Secretary of Chongqing. Later that year, he lost all of his remaining Party and government posts, and was expelled from the Party altogether in November 2012. But Bo refuses to go quietly. In court, he has contested the charges against him with ferocity and signature flourish, though it is unclear whether his actions have truly caught the authorities by surprise, or whether they are part of a pre-arranged settlement which included an agreement that he would be allowed to contest some of the accusations against him.

The Bo scandal marks the end of an impressive twenty-year run, in which the CCP managed to largely hide from public view any hint of factionalism or political infighting. The Bo scandal peeled back the curtain on elite politics in China to reveal that Party propaganda aside, politics in China is a hard-edged sport, one that is unburdened by clear institutional restraints on power or meaningful public oversight. Instead only a small handful of agreed-upon conventions, hewed to by the elite but still not codified in law, limit the bounds of what is permissible. The Party should see the Bo affair as a wake-up call, a chance to restart the political reform agenda, one that includes strong institutional limits on its own power, a clear dividing line between Party and government, and greater public oversight of government authority.  By signaling a renewed commitment to political reform, the Party might well win back some credibility with the public, and buy itself some much-needed time to get its own house into order. As Bo Xilai could attest, better to lose some power than to lose it all.  

LARB Contributor

Thomas E. Kellogg is the director of the Northeast Asia Program at the Open Society Foundations. He is also a lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School. Kellogg has written widely on legal reform in China, and has lectured on Chinese law at a number of universities in the United States and China.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!