A tale of Chinese intrigue and conspiracy… sounds like Chung Kuo, right? This time, it’s non-fiction. Thanks for sending this along, David.
Of Dynasties And Dragons
If in these blogs I sometimes seem to be emphatically anti-Chinese, I don’t mean to be. Things I
dislike, or which don’t interest me, I tend to ignore. Things that do, I tend to obsess about. China, as
my girls will vouch, is my number one obsession. And, right now, because China is going through an
astonishing period of social and political change, there is much about that process that deserves not
merely our attention but our direct and unequivocal criticism.
And even then, it’s not normally China I am criticising, but the corruption, misuse of power, outright
fraud, injustice and ignoring of basic human rights – all that stuff that’s associated with the exercise
of power – that I want to dwell upon .
Okay. Put simply and directly. I’m bashing the CPC and the Politburo again. And what better way
of beginning that process than by looking at what’s been happening recently, and – specifically –
what’s been happening in Chongqing.
Okay. Some background here.
Chongqing is a massive city in Sichuan province, one of five national central Cities in China, with a
population in excess of twenty eight million. The Head of the CPC (the Communist Party of China)
in Chongqing since November 2007 was Bo Xilai, champion of the “new Left” – of Neo Maoism – in
Let me pause there. I’ll give you more background in a moment, but let me just say this. I wish I’d
come up with this as a plot line for Chung Kuo. It’s all too good – fictionally – to be true. But true it
is… apparently. But before we come to the juicy details, a bit more background.
Bo Xilai, born in 1949, was the son if Bo Yibo, one of the “Eight Elders” of the Chinese Communist
Party and a dragon if ever there was one. A Long Marcher, a friend and contemporary of Mao
Tse Tung, and a hard-liner, his son pretty much inherited his place in the CPC hierarchy, taking
on his father’s role, and when he came to power in Chongqing he promoted egalitarianism and
campaigned to revive Cultural Revolution era values, insisting upon “red culture”. What this
seemed to entail was the singing of old revolutionary anthems, “red songs” like “Unity Is Power”
and “Revolutionaries Are Forever Young”, praising the CPC; something that quite a few of his
officials, raised in the new, more liberal, essentially capitalist world of China, took objection to (if not
to his face).
That said, all was going well for Bo Xilai. His campaign against organised crime, and his strong
stand against corruption, along with his increased spending on welfare, went hand in hand with
maintaining a strong economic basis for Chongqing’s massive expansion. By the turn of 2012, Bo Xilai
– architect of the ‘Chongqing model’ – was being talked of as a strong candidate for a seat on the
nine-man politburo when it underwent its once-a-decade change in November this year. Popular,
successful and, most important of all, a member of one of those few families – dynasties, let’s call
them, because that’s what they are – that “made” modern China what it is, he seemed to have the
perfect CV for the job.
So what could possibly have gone wrong?
Those bloody songs, that’s what. Saying which, let’s introduce Wang LiJun, Head of the PSB (Public
Security Bureau) – effectively the chief of police – for Chongqing, and one of Bo Xilai’s right-hand
men. A man who, according to his colleagues, couldn’t abide singing the old “red songs”.
Wang LiJun was Bo Xilai’s contemporary, and he had served for near on thirty years in public
security. In his later years he was noted for his campaigns to crack down on corruption, particularly
in Liaoning Province, where he served as chief of police under Bo Xilai. And when Bo took up
his promotion in Chongjing, Wang LiJun went along with him as his “enforcer”. From July 2009
their “strike-hard” campaign in Chongjing on the “black societies” made him China’s most feared
man, with over 1500 suspects arrested in the largest ever crackdown of its kind, and a further 4,500
taken into custody in the two years that followed, not to mention thirteen executions. Indeed, so
popular was Wang they made a TV series based on his exploits, Iron-Blooded Police Spirits. On the
downside, Wang LiJun had a six million yuan bounty placed on his head by his enemies.
And then, on the second of February 2010, Wang LiJun and Bo Xilai fell out. Various excuses were
given, but the central issue seems to have been corruption. Wang had been threatened with
prosecution for his involvement in the Tieling corruption case which had been going on for some
while, and, to win leniency for himself, he apparently offered some damning information on Bo Xilai
and his wife
But Wang’s actions took an even more dramatic twist on February 8th when he visited the US
Consulate in Chengdu, where he reportedly sought political asylum. In the 36 hours he was
there, Wang well and truly blew the whistle on his bosses and on corruption in the higher CPC
elite generally. This attempt to defect was unprecedented, not only causing major international
embarrassment for China, but raw naked fear among that elite, who didn’t know just what
incriminating evidence Wang had on any of them.
Unfortunately for Wang, the US refused asylum and Wang was arrested and thrown into jail, where
he now faces the possible death penalty.
All might have been fine for Bo Xilai, only other, darker accusations lay in wait. On 14 November last
year, a British businessman, Neil Heywood, had been found dead in his hotel room in Chongjing.
The cause of death, according to the police of chief, Wang LiJun, was an over-indulgence in alcohol.
Heywood was forty one and a “colourful’ man by all accounts. He worked for a company – Hakluyt –
linked closely to MI6 and had been a close associate of Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai for more than
a decade. Heywood’s role in things is somewhat vague, but the best guess is that he was some kind
of ‘comprador’ or intermediary: a man who had all the contacts and could get you access to China’s
A friend of Heywood’s, talking to The Sunday Times before Heywood’s death, claimed that anyone
who wanted to do business in Chongqing – which was effectively Bo Xilai’s fiefdom – would have
had to retain Gu Kailai’s law firm and pay its substantial fees if they wanted to get permits and
contracts, which was utterly necessary as most of this business had to do with deals with the central
government and local government worth billions of dollars.
Heywood’s fluent mandarin, his public school background and his Chinese wife, gained him access to
this world of high level corruption; and to what is now being slowly revealed as the dark underbelly
of China’s financial boom. But back to our tale.
What Wang had discovered, it seems, was that Heywood was much closer to Bo Xilai and his family
than it had first appeared. Bo’s party-loving son, Guagua, was a close friend of Heywood’s, and it was
likely that Heywood had assisted in getting Guagua places at Harrow, Oxford and Harvard. Reading
through the file, Wang LiJun must have heard alarm bells ringing. This was – as the Chinese say – ‘Da
mafan’ – Big Trouble.
A post mortem might have proved problematic, so the body was quickly and quietly cremated –
ostensibly at the request of his relatives (who later denied this). ‘Excessive alcohol’ was the declared
verdict, only there was one problem with that. Everyone who knew Heywood knew that he was not
a big drinker. All of this stank of ‘damage control’, but as soon as the Western press – as they did –
got a sniff of the story, things were much harder to keep bottled up. Wang (who had secretly taken
his own precautions by slicing off part of Heywood’s arm, to keep as DNA evidence in case it was
needed) warned his boss that big trouble was in the offing and that he might not be able to contain
things. It was a moment for keeping a unified front, only Bo Xilai was distracted. His major ambition
– to be appointed to the nine man politburo in November 2012 – drove him on. As I’ve said, feeling
threatened by his right hand man, he demoted Wang LiJun.
Which explains why, on the eighth of February, Wang LiJun hastened to the US embassy, fearing that
Bo Xilai was going to make him the scapegoat. It was an act which made the Politburo sit up and pay
attention. Especially that part of it that had witnessed Bo Xilai’s Leftist posturing with dismay. It was,
they recognised, the perfect opportunity to curtail the man and prevent him from getting closer to
the reins of power.
In April this year, Bo Xilai’s wife, Gu Kailai, was arrested and charged with the murder of Neil
Heywood, after admitting to the crime. It was subsequently revealed that police chief Wang LiJun,
anticipating future trouble, had actually taken a slice of Heywood’s flesh to use as DNA evidence
before they cremated the body. DNA evidence which, it is believed, would confirm that Heywood
was poisoned. To add to Gu Kailai’s troubles, a Chinese official then confessed to supplying her with
potassium cyanide – a pinch of which would prove deadly.
Gu Kailai, alternately described as the Jackie Kennedy of China and “an unforgiving empress”, was, it
was claimed, making illicit money transfers, and there’s some evidence to suggest that she tried to
smuggle £200,000 into Britain. Heywood, it seems, knew of these transfers, and – for some reason –
threatened to reveal these. The murder, it’s alleged, was a simple attempt to shut Heywood up for
All of this, thus far, could be seen as the tragedy of an individual (or four), were it not for the fact
that Bo Xilai was such a champion of the Leftist, anti-liberal factor in the CCP, and a likely candidate
for one of China’s most powerful roles. It is this single element that elevates what happened from
local scandal to global politics. What we are actually talking about is, as I’ve called it before, a “War
in Heaven”, one which will dramatically affect China’s relationship with the West for the next decade
– deciding whether China continues to liberalise in small ways, or whether there will be the same old
practice of crack-downs and suppression and high-level denial. Ironically, the fall of one individual
could well mean the liberation of more than a billion individuals. But we’ll see.
Of course, none of this will be filling the airwaves. In November, when this is all due to happen,
there’s another attraction happening – the election of a new president of the United States. Mitt
Romney or the seated incumbent? I just can’t call it right now. Obama ought to win, but that’s not
always how it works. The American people might simply want a change, and I reckon if Mitt decides
to make China and China’s threat to America’s economy an issue, then we might all be in for a pretty
bleak protectionist future. You think we’ve got recession now? Just wait and see how bad things can
Hell, there’s much more to this story than I’ve outlined above. All manner of strange twists and
turns. But corruption and political ambition – the former endemic in China right now – are threaded
deeply into this strange little tale. Oh, and an overwhelming arrogance.
So I’ll be returning to this matter. Trying to tease out the various threads and make sense of what
this reveals of modern China and its future. But watch this space. I have a gut instinct that there’s
more – much more – to be revealed. I mean, I’ve said nothing until now of Bo Xilai tapping premier
Hu Jintao’s phones… nothing about a certain air crash… about happenings in Dailan, and the arrest
of A Chinese blogger…
Monday 15th July 2012