Every 10 years, the Chinese Communist Party holds a Central Committee meeting to choose its leaders. At the apex is the powerful 7 member Politburo Standing Committee. As may be expected, this is an occasion for intense power plays and lobbying. The last Central Committee meeting (the 18th) occurred on 15th November 2012 which resulted in the elevation of Xi Jinping to post of General Secretary and Central Committee Chairman making him the effective head of the China.
Xi Jinping and the 18th Central Committee Meeting
But Jinping’s rise wasn’t a case of consensus politics. A few months before, a story had erupted that revealed the sordid world of Chinese power politics and drew the attention of the world. At its centre was one of Xi Jinping’s rivals and strong contender for election in toe the Politburo Standing Committee, Bo Xilai.
Like Jinping, Bo was a ‘princeling’ descended from one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Movement who had been purged during the Cultural Revolution. Both Bo and Xi had been forced away from their early years in relative comfort, to work in far flung corners of China. Both had lived to see their fathers’ reputations restored and returned to their fast track rise to power.
Bo Xilai’s father, Bo Yibo, Vice Premier of the People’s Republic of China (1957-66, 79-82)
The ‘princelings’ lived their early lives in a close community where they ate together and knew each other intimately. By all accounts, Bo was always tall, charismatic and good looking, a natural leader of his peers.
In 2002, at the previous Central Committee meeting Bo, then Commerce Minister was admitted into the 25 member Politburo just under the Standing Committee. He was striking distance from the top job. But Bo had powerful enemies. Among them was then Premier Wen Jiabao. With the death of his father in 2007, he lost much of his family protection. He was moved to head the Communist Party in the provincial city of Chongquing.
At the time, Chongquing was like 1930s Chicago with powerful organized crime, corruption, unemployment as well as heavy water pollution and poor public health which were side effects of the Three gorges Dam. Bo turned his banishment to his advantage as he moved to rapidly improve public infrastructure and living standard amongst the poor. He started a vigorous propaganda campaign making him a sort of folk hero.
To fund all this, he needed money. With his Police Chief Wang Lijun, he started a crackdown on crime. Wang was described as a narcissist. In the campaign which saw the arrest of 1544 suspects including some of the wealthiest businessmen, government advisers and crime bosses, Wang was in his element. The campaign was done in the full glare of the media spotlight. Wang would often appear in person dressed dramatically to arrest well known figures. To arrest a lawyer known to represent high profile criminals, Wang had the plane on which he was landing surrounded by armed police. He then appeared in a trenchcoat and in front of media photographers moved to personally arrest the lawyer. Wang even promoted a TV show based on his own life.
Police Chief Wang Lijun
With every arrest, Bo moved to seize the assets of the charged man. With this he funded the projects on which he based his political ambitions. By 2011, the competition for the top spots in the 2012 Committee meeting was intense.
Then something very strange happened. On 6th February, 2012 a man dressed as an old woman appeared at the US consulate in Chengdu and begged for asylum. The man turned out to be Bo Xilai’s former Police Chief Wang Lijun. Wang had fallen out with Bo and now feared for his life. Wang did not qualify for US asylum under any category. Further, Chinese police surrounded the US consulate putting it in a state of siege. Then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton remembered Wang as a “thug”.
Both Bo and his enemies in Beijing wanted Wang in their hands. This was a delicate moment for US diplomacy. Finally, Wan was handed over to Beijing and Bo Xilai’s fate was sealed.
Bo Xilai’s wife, Gu Kilai
Wang claimed he had evidence linking Bo’s wife Gu Kilai with the murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood. Heywood was known as a ‘fixer’ for Bo’s family and had arranged for Bo’s son to study in the UK at the prestigious Harrows school.
But Haywood and Gu Kailai had a falling out. In November 2011, he was invited by Gu to Chongquing to meet with her. There on 14th November 2011, he was found dead at the Lucky Holiday Hotel. The official cause of death was excessive alcohol consumption. Heywood family and friends who knew him to be a moderate drinker did not believe this. No autopsy was performed.
According to Wang, Heywood was trying to blackmail Gu Kailai. He had threatened to expose how she was laundering money out of China and even threatened her son. Gu had invited Heywood to Chongquing and met him for dinner. There she poisoned him and covered up the crime scene with an accomplice to make it look like Heywood had died of an overdose.
Gu Kailai was charged with murder. At the trial, only approved Chinese journalists were admitted. Foreign press had to rely on the official court report. Gu Kailai’s defence was to plead insanity. She was portrayed as a paranoid depressive who acted out of fear for her son’s safety. Through this, she was able to evade the death penalty and settle for life imprisonment.
Bo was finished too. On 15th March 2012, he was dismissed as party chief of Chongquing. Due to the high profile nature of the case, the Politburo Standing Committee was involved in the decision. The sole dissenting voice is believed to have been of security tsar Zhou YongKang.
Bo wasn’t charged with the murder himself. He was charged with bribery, abuse of power and corruption. Lurid tales emerged of his sex life with multiple women. The vice director of the Chinese Forensic Medicine Association and the Supreme Court’s Prosecutorial Research Center, Wang Xuemei resigned a few days before the trial. She had publicly questioned the quality of forensic evidence at the trial of Bo’s wife Gu Kailai.
After his election, in his inauguration speech, Xi Jinping announced his anti-corruption campaign vowing to clear up all levels of government, among both the “tigers and flies”. One of the first to fall was Bo’s supporter and former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou YongKang.
BBC radio has recently made a podcast on the whole story. If you are interested, I highly recommend you listen to it here.