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Hollywood-style drama in Chinese political murder mystery

Stringer/China / Reuters

China's former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai pose in this January 17, 2007 file photo.

BEIJING – The political shock waves set off from within a U.S. diplomatic compound by a disgruntled ex-cop in the southwestern city of Chengdu have culminated into what may well be China’s biggest political scandal in years.  

Already removed from a powerful regional post, the controversial but high-flying political star Bo Xilai has been purged from all his positions in China’s ruling hierarchy, and now his wife has been named a murder suspect, according to official announcements.

It was Bo’s former police chief and trusted aide, Wang Lijun, who ultimately led to Bo’s downfall and the criminal detention of his wife for her suspected role in the death of a British businessman. 

In February, Wang was said to have sought asylum in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, spending roughly 30 hours there. Now in government hands, the former police chief has reportedly turned against his boss, with incriminating evidence of the Bo family’s crimes and corruption.

“No Hollywood movie can match this Chongqing political drama,” observed prominent blogger Michael Anti, referring to the megacity by the Yangtze River, over which Bo held sway for five years.

And coming in the midst of China’s once-in-a decade leadership transition – the nation’s first political succession in the glare of Internet-driven public opinion and perhaps its most challenging ever – the political upheaval has torn away the aura of leadership unity, with sobering implications for China’s future.


To Communist Party, former favored son is ‘dead’
The latest bombshell came on Tuesday when China’s state-run news agency Xinhua reported that Bo’s wife Gu Kailai was detained and is being investigated for her suspected role in the “intentional homicide” of British businessman Neil Heywood – once a close family friend.


The other suspect in Heywood’s death is Zhang Xiaojun, who is described as an “orderly” working in Bo’s family home.

China's Communist party unleashed its full weight against former politician Bo Xilai and his wife at the center of a murder scandal Wednesday. ITN's Angus Walker reports from Beijing.

An inquiry has been re-opened on the basis of information provided by Wang, the ex-police chief, in connection with Heywood’s death. His death last November was originally blamed on “excessive” alcohol, but now poison is suspected, with a possible motive of economic disputes with the Bo family.

'Jackie Kennedy of China' suspected in death of British businessman 

Bo – a princeling, or son of one of the Communist Party elders, Bo Yibo - gained national fame for his own crackdown on crime and corruption and for his effort to revive a Maoist-era “red culture” movement.  He attempted to use the so-called Chongqing model of development as a jumping board for joining the highest leadership body in the power transition later this year. The Chongqing Model emphasized state-led investment, with development zones, transportation links and incentives to lure business, according to Bloomberg.

“He was bound to fail,” said Professor Hu Xingdou, an analyst and frequent government critic. “He was going against the tide with his Chongqing model that was repeating the methods of the disastrous Cultural Revolution.”

With the announcement of Bo’s wife’s detention, China’s Communist Party seemed to officially disown the former favored son.  

Bo’s conduct has “seriously violated the party’s disciplinary rules, damaging the affairs of the party and the country and badly harming the image of the party and the country,” the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper declared Wednesday.

The leaders’ decision over Bo “was signaling that they were able to act very quickly, to make a decision on it and to get it over with as soon as possible because they do not want to derail the actual transition that’s coming later in October this year,” according to Damien Ma, a top China analyst at Eurasia Group, a consulting firm.

Ma dismissed suggestions that Bo’s dismissal reflects any factional fighting within the Communist Party or that it would lead to Tiananmen Square protests-style turmoil. “No, him alone is not going to create another 1989,” he said.

China’s leaders essentially disowned him “very quickly, and that was clearly to show to the rest of the Party that Bo Xilai is dead; do not support him.  It’s telegraphing to his supporters that this is done, we’ve made the decision, let’s move on, I think that’s what the message is,” said Ma.

China’s challenging future
“The decision showed that the top leadership has achieved unity where before there might have been differences of opinion,” concurred Hu.  “And this unity is good for leadership succession and also good for social stability, because now no one will sympathize with Bo.”

The professor also described as “understandable the crackdown on Internet rumors while deliberation was going on, but now that there is leadership unity, it is natural to allow the freedom to comment.”

Moreover, for Hu, the decision also showed the “determination” to fight corruption and crime. “But it was accidental in this case because without the Wang Lijun incident, Bo’s crimes and corruptions might not have been exposed,” he added.

Ma was skeptical about the idea that Bo’s case had anything to larger political reform.

“The Communist Party is trying to institutionalize a lot of the norms and procedures, but at the end of the day, these mass-scale personalized politics happen, and they happen with a lot of fierceness and unpredictability,” he said, referring to the impact of Bo’s case on succession politics.

As for the challenges for China’s next generation of leaders? 

“I would say that, over the next decade, political and social risks in China are actually going to be more challenging and more difficult than the past 30 years combined,” said Ma. “They are facing a lot of issues they’ve never dealt with before, primarily socio-economic inequalities and political issues that are brought out by this enormous economic growth, and they haven’t had time to pause and think about what to do about them.  Frankly, this is a very challenging decade for China internally.”

Social media afire
Not surprisingly, China’s blogosphere spun into a frenzy in the hours before the fate of Bo and his wife was officially announced, culminating in a face-off between netizens and Chinese Internet authorities.

As early as Tuesday afternoon, people forwarded posts that “a very important announcement” would be made on the primetime news program. By the time the news was finally read out on the late evening bulletin at 11 p.m., virtually every post on Weibo, China’s most popular Twitter-like service, was about the fall from grace of Bo and his family.

Meanwhile, a battle between the online “rumor spreaders” and government “rumor cleaners” raged on.  Spokesmen from leading Chinese websites such as Baidu, Sina and Tencent pledged on camera they would do their best to develop and deploy an advanced prevention system—fortified with human monitors 24/7 to prevent the spread of false information.

“We will absolutely prevent Weibo from becoming a hotbed of rumors,” said Chen Tong, the chief editor of Sina.com which hosts of Weibo.

But rumors – especially in China – often spread too quickly to contain.

And, it would appear, sometimes stories that start as rumors end up being true.

Months ago, people were talking about Heywood’s mysterious death and speculating about Bo’s ouster, but the posts always wound up being deleted minutes after being posted.

“While you are trying to refute a rumor, that rumor becomes true. Why bother to refute? Today’s rumor is tomorrow’s truth,” said one user called Yuan Tengfei on his Weibo page.

“You want us to sing red songs, but you are more black than the black society. This is sarcastic,” said another Weibo user called Longcan.  (In Chinese, “black society” means mafia.)

Boxun – an overseas Chinese Website censored in China for its bold reporting on mainland politics – fed sleepless, fascinated Chinese readers with even more dramatic rumors soon after last night’s news.  Boxun’s latest report alleges that Mrs. Bo was involved in multiple murders and that the order for getting rid of Heywood came directly from her husband, because the Englishman knew the family had transferred millions of dollars of assets to foreign countries.  (A common practice among many of China’s wealthy families.) 

Teng Biao, a prominent human rights lawyer, joked on his Twitter page: “I almost want to write a movie script. Mafia, affair, international espionage, guns, murder, trial, princeling, coup. This movie would be a big hit."

Researcher Isabella Zhong contributed to this report.