(originally published on Murder is Everywhere, 8/18/13)
I've been wanting to write a post about the Bo Xilai scandal, which has to be one of the strangest, most over-the-top political scandals of all times. In fact, I wanted to rip it off for the plot of my next book, but I decided that no one would believe it. Even trying to write a post about it boggled my mind, because it's so bizarre. But here's a brief whack at it.
Bo is the former
Mayor Party Secretary of Chongqing and was a very powerful fellow who had ambitions of becoming a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest decision-making body in China, and maybe even premier or president, and he might have done it. He was charismatic, popular, a guy who used old-style Maoist propaganda and "Red Songs" to appeal to the masses of Chinese who feel left behind in the current "to get rich is glorious" hyper-capitalism that runs the country these days. Bo had the reputation of a man who got things done, who cleaned up Chongqing, cracked down on organized crime and corruption. He combined this with the outspoken, glad-handing style of an American politician, something of which the gray men of the CCP did not approve, accustomed as they are to doing things behind the scenes and by consensus.
Gu Kailai and Bo Xilai
Then it all fell apart. His anti-corruption campaign was as corrupt and as lawless as the forces it fought against. The nod to Maoist propaganda frightened many who'd been through Maoist excesses like the Cultural Revolution, even though Bo mostly seemed to be using this as a way to rally the masses, as opposed to resurrecting struggle sessions, violent battles between different factions of Red Guards and "Smashing the Olds."
And then his wife, Gu Kailai, a lawyer once known as the "Jackie Kennedy of China" murdered a British businessman.
At least, that's the story.
The victim, Neil Heywood, was a man with longstanding ties to the Bo's. He was a fixer of sorts who helped get their son, Guagua, into Harrow. He also is suspected to have helped the family move millions out of China and into offshore accounts. Oh, and there's a villa in Cannes involved. None of which is out of the ordinary for prominent Chinese politicians and the wealthy, for reasons beyond corruption (though there is a LOT of corruption) -- many do not believe that their money is safe in China, and their lack of confidence in the long-term stability of the country might give pause to those who are convinced that China will rule the world.
But I digress.
The story goes that Heywood and Gu Kailai had a falling out, with Heywood demanding more money for his services and threatening to reveal the family's overseas business dealings. On top of that, Gu Kailai feared that he endangered her son. So, naturally, she lured Heywood to a Chongqing hotel, where she and an assistant poisoned him with cyanide.
If this is what happened, she might have gotten away with it, if not for the head of the Chongqing Police Department (and vice-mayor of Chongqing), Wang Lijun.
If you're thinking this sounds like the kind of murder story where a heroic police chief defies and confronts the powerful in his pursuit of the truth, well, not exactly.
Wang had been Bo's right hand during the crackdown on organized crime (and people Bo didn't like—the crackdown had also served as as a handy way to extort millions from businessmen on the wrong side of the political fence) but apparently they'd had their own falling-out, which might have been precipitated by corruption on Wang's part, or because he'd investigated Heywood's death and discovered the involvement of Mrs. Bo in same and confronted Bo with it. In any case, after being abruptly demoted by Bo, he fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, where he stayed for a day, possibly trying to defect, or maybe just looking for a safe refuge from Bo. He left on his own accord and was then escorted to Beijing by State Security. The Chongqing Municipal Government insisted that everything was fine and that Wang was undergoing "vacation-style medical treatment."
Gu Kailai was convicted of Heywood's murder last August. She received a suspended death sentence, and it's not clear how long she'll serve time. But even though the trial was a carefully choreographed affair, it had its own bizarre aspect. Namely, that the person standing trial was maybe not Gu Kailai.
It's not uncommon for rich people in China to hire a person in need of money to stand trial and receive punishment in place of the accused, and when photos from the trail were published, rumors flew around the Chinese web that a body-double stood in Gu Kailai's place.
You be the judge
Meanwhile, Bo Xilai was stripped of his positions and thrown out of the CCP. His trial is expected to begin next week. The charges against him are expected to be taking bribes, embezzling state funds and abusing his power -- altogether, not as serious as some expected. But it was always a difficult line to walk. Bo was not only very popular and a leading representative of the "New Left" in China, he is also a member of CCP royalty, the son of one of the "Eight Immortals," revolutionary heroes who were highly influential in running the People's Republic until their deaths (Deng Xiaoping was one of their number). Oh, and another one of the dynamics in all of this is that Bo's family warred with the family of the current president, Xi Jinping, and that Bo and Xi are long-time rivals. There's a nifty short book by John Garnault called "The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo" that explores this angle.
The latest wrinkle? Well, three. Neil Heywood's mother has asked the Chinese government to compensate the family, particularly his two children, for his death. Bo Xilai's six brothers and sisters are quarreling about how the case should be handled and their relations with Gu Kailai's family (which is also a powerful "Princeling" family naturally).
Bo is said to be furious (not too surprising) — he didn't provide evidence against Kailai in her murder trial, even though they reportedly almost divorced a decade ago. But Kailai's motivation, supposedly, is to protect son Guagua from any prosecution by the Chinese government (Guagua has stayed in the U.S. through all of this).
Mr. Bo, who didn't testify against his wife, is angered that she is now providing evidence against him and has threatened to disrupt proceedings and demand a divorce if she testifies in court, or via video, rather than in written form...
"She will provide evidence--that can't be avoided--but the question is in what way," said one person familiar with the Bo family. "If she appears in court, who knows what could happen."
Given the facts of this case? I can't even begin to imagine.
Did I mention the French architect who also helped buy the Cannes villa and who once shared a residential address in England with Gu Kailai?