Review: The real story of Bo Xilai’s ruin

February 15, 2013

By Peter Thal Larsen

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

Sometime in the next few months, Bo Xilai is expected to stand trial in the most high-profile political prosecution in China for over three decades. The former Chongqing party chief, once a contender to join the inner core of China’s leadership, stands accused of corruption, abuse of power and – more prosaically – “improper sexual relations” with women.

The criminal accusations, though, are only part of a more momentous story: the intense multi-generation fight for control of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. It is that story that John Garnaut, the China correspondent for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian newspapers, attempts to unravel in “The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo”.

Though the details of Bo’s trial are something of a state secret – last month, journalists vainly rushed to the southern city of Guiyang following rumours the case was due to be heard there – a guilty verdict seems beyond doubt. Bo’s conviction will follow that of his wife, Gu Kailai, who admitted pouring a fatal cyanide solution down the throat of British businessman Neil Heywood in 2011.

The graphic details of his death sparked a global eruption of speculation. But this short but compelling e-book relegates Heywood to a walk-on part. Garnaut points out that Heywood’s death and hasty cremation remained unremarked until Wang Lijun – Chongqing’s police chief and Bo’s close ally – took refuge in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu and confessed to helping cover up the murder.

Wang’s flight was probably sparked by a Beijing probe into his overenthusiastic role in helping Bo assert his authority on Chongqing. The pursuit of Wang was designed to undermine Bo.

Why was Bo deemed such a threat? The struggle stretches back to his father, Bo Yibo, one of a group of party leaders surrounding Deng Xiaoping. Garnaut places the elder Bo and his son in a hard-line tradition at odds with more progressive policies, most recently articulated by Wen Jiabao, China’s outgoing premier. Bo’s heritage was evident in his trumpeting of the so-called “Chongqing model” – a mixture of headlong economic expansion, suppression of dissent, and Mao-era sloganeering.

As Garnaut acknowledges, political alliances and rivalries in China defy simple labels. China-watchers often talk of “princelings”, the offspring of revolutionary heroes, as a single group. Both Bo Xilai and Xi Jinping, the party’s new leader, fall in this category, yet it seems Xi viewed Bo as a threat to his own ascent. Political ideas are equally slippery. The word “reform” defies simple categorisation in the context of a party whose overriding goal is to retain its grip on power.

The book, first published last autumn, was clearly written in a hurry. Much of the early material is poorly organised – multiple characters and their sometimes complex connections are introduced without clear explanation. Garnaut also mixes conventional journalistic sourcing with fly-on-the-wall accounts of meetings. Yet he offers a compelling sketch of the chaos and corruption of Chongqing, and the violence, expropriation and forced confessions that characterised Bo and Wang’s campaign to bend the metropolis to their will.

In summary, Garnaut offers a rough draft of the latest chapter in the improbable history of China’s Communist Party: “that great black box that conceals the struggles, brutality, partial truths and outright fabrications upon which China has built its staggering economic and social transformation.” If and when Bo Xilai eventually takes the stand, the background provided by this book will prove invaluable.

 

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