“News 1+1″ is a sort of Chinese “60 Minutes,” a newsmagazine on state-run China Central Television that explores – as much as the censors permit – the more contentious corners of Chinese society. In December 2009, the programme took aim at a much-publicised anticorruption campaign in the metropolis of Chongqing, a crusade that had grabbed national attention for its sweep, but raised deep concerns about its brutality and disregard for the law.
What followed was an object lesson in how Bo Xilai, the campaign’s architect and the secretary of Chongqing’s Communist Party at the time, dealt with those who stood in his way.
Bo called Jiao Li, a friend and colleague from the past who was president of China Central Television, or CCTV, at the time. In short order, the producer of “News 1+1″ was transferred to another programme. The show’s popular host was briefly banned from the airwaves.
“Poor CCTV,” said Li Zhuang, a lawyer who dared to defend one of Bo’s high-profile targets – and was sentenced to 30 months in prison for supposedly manufacturing false testimony in the case. “They can’t even protect their own children.”
As recently as January, Bo was aiming for the pinnacle of Chinese political power, a seat on the nine-member Politburo’s Standing Committee, when the Communist Party’s leadership begins a generational turnover this autumn. He was a fixation for the news media and foreign leaders, the handsome convention-flouter who was breaking the calcified mold of China’s leadership caste.
Today, Bo’s fall has transfixed the world. He is suspended from the Politburo, under investigation for “serious violations” of Communist Party rules and being held incommunicado at an unknown location. His wife, Gu Kailai, long known for her own zealous ambition, stands accused by party investigators of murdering a British family friend, Neil Heywood, in a dispute over money. Neither Bo nor Gu have been given an opportunity to defend themselves publicly.
For all his success, the seeds of Bo’s destruction were evident long ago to many of those who knew him. He was a man of prodigious charisma and deep intelligence, someone who not only possessed the family pedigree and network of allies that are crucial in Chinese politics, but who had also mastered the image-massaging and strategic use of public cash that fuel every Western politician’s rise.
But Bo’s undisputed talents were counterbalanced by what friends and critics alike say was an insatiable ambition and studied indifference to the wrecked lives that littered his path to power. Little is known about career maneuvers in China’s cloistered leadership elite, but those who study the topic say that Bo’s ruthlessness stood out, even in a system where the absence of formal rules ensures that only the strongest advance.
“Nobody really trusts him: a lot of people are scared of him, including several princelings who are supposed to be his power base,” said Cheng Li, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The so-called princelings – like Bo, offspring of China’s first revolutionary leaders – remain a powerful, though fragmented, force in China’s internal politics.
“That’s just his character,” the son of one Communist Party elder, who knows Bo well, said in February. “From the county up to the Politburo, he’s a person who has to have it his way.”
Bo was said by employees to be a demanding and unforgiving boss, summoning underlings to middle-of-the-night meetings, throwing crockery and even hitting those who failed to deliver what he wanted. One such underling approached an associate of Bo shortly after a meeting in Dalian and begged the associate to give her a job. “She said to me, ‘He’s angry and abusive, verbally abusive. He’s a bad man and I want to change jobs,’ ” he recalled.
That penchant for power and glory earned him powerful enemies at virtually every step of his ascendance. His peers from Liaoning Province, where he was a prominent official for more than a decade, pointedly left him off the delegation to the 15th Congress of the Communist Party in 1997, even though he was by then both mayor and deputy party secretary in Dalian, the province’s second-largest city.
When Bo left his post as Liaoning Province governor in 2004 to become commerce minister in Beijing, the province’s party secretary, Wen Shizhen, famously gave a party to celebrate his exit.
Yet he continued upward anyway, the internal enmities papered over by a Communist Party obsessed with the appearance of unity, his excesses overlooked by the family and political allies whose own clout rose with his.
Bo got tough at an early age.
He was born with a pedigree – his father, Bo Yibo, was a war hero who was at Mao Zedong’s side during the revolution – and studied with other children of the elite at Beijing No. 4 High School, China’s best. But when Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the elder Bo became one of the first targets of the purges, relabeled a revisionist traitor and dragged from stadium to factory to government office for show trials and beatings.
At age 17, Bo seemed to embrace the purges, forming with other elites’ children a radical Red Guard faction later condemned by Chinese authorities for its brutality. Stories abound that young Bo denounced and even beat his father, who spent 12 years in prison. Other Red Guards kidnapped his mother, who was either murdered or died of illness in 1969.
The truth is murkier. Historians say Bo’s faction actually opposed violence and tried to defend its members’ elite parents against Mao’s excesses. Mao’s forces quickly turned on them, and in early 1967 Bo Xilai was shipped to a Beijing labour camp for five years. Working barefoot, often in deep mud, his feet became so rotted that chunks of flesh fell off, he later told friends.
But after Mao’s death, father and son emerged stronger than ever. The rehabilitated Bo Yibo became vice premier in 1979, under his wartime friend Deng Xiaoping. In the succeeding decade, he was Deng’s point man in the ouster of two successive Communist Party general secretaries, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, during China’s tumultuous and failed liberalisation in the 1980s.
That earned him the gratitude of Zhao’s successor as Communist Party leader, Jiang Zemin. The elder Bo, who died in 2007, continued to help Jiang sideline rivals into his dotage. Jiang, who continues to wield backstage influence in China’s politics even now, is widely said to have given Bo Xilai’s political career a boost at crucial times.
Barely a decade after taking his first desk job at Communist Party headquarters in Beijing, Bo was named mayor of Dalian, a city of about six million on the north Pacific coast, in 1992. By then he had married Gu, whose family pedigree included a father who helped lead Communist resistance to the Japanese in the 1930s and 1940s. Gu set about building a law practice and a public reputation, including an entire book on her exploits in a lawsuit she helped pursue in the United States.
Bo, meanwhile, began to hone the political skills and a hunger for authority that would come to define his career.
The mayor’s job was a plum – the central government was pouring billions into reviving its coastal cities – and Bo oversaw a lavish effort to remake Dalian, a graceful but rundown seaport, in the image of Hong Kong. A building boom replaced empty factories with office and apartment towers; companies from nearby Japan made Dalian a beachhead for investment in China. Bo poured billions of renminbi into splashy ventures like annual international fashion shows and beer festivals, civic sculptures and a programme that draped the city in seas of freshly planted grass.
Bo attended seven and eight events a day in the style of an American mayor in full re-election mode. He relentlessly hyped Dalian’s soccer team, China’s best, as an icon of civic pride.
“You could argue that none of these things are basic to the well-being of the people, but you had the sense it appealed,” said Stephen MacKinnon, an author and longtime scholar of China who knew Bo in the 1980s and early 1990s. “It was flashy.”
Bo’s self-promotion was equally splashy: by the mid-1990s, a celebrity chronicler had penned a fawning history of his Dalian accomplishments, and pro-Bo articles were being planted in major newspapers nationwide. Dalian gained an international buzz, and Bo vaulted to governor of surrounding Liaoning Province and a seat on the Central Committee, which includes about 370 of the party’s most powerful figures.
“He was accompanied wherever he went by a battalion of fabulous young women wearing Madonna headsets and sassy little sailor outfits,” The South China Morning Post gushed in 2004, recounting a dinner with the governor on a ship docked at Dalian port. “He circulated easily between tables, shaking hands with every man, woman and child on board, graciously accepting the many requests for photos and autographs that his celebrity status guaranteed. Later, when he spoke on stage, his enraptured audience seemed powerless to resist him.”
Known for Abrasiveness
Elsewhere, however, a different Bo was on display.
Jiang Weiping had pulled into the parking space outside his apartment building one December morning in 2000 when a half-dozen men threw open his car doors, forced him into the back seat and threw his jacket over his head.
Jiang, a journalist, had written repeatedly about government corruption in Dalian. He was taken, he said, to a military detention centre where the Communist Party secretary of the city’s public security bureau, Che Keming, awaited him. Che had been Bo’s cook and driver before a meteoric rise through the city hierarchy.
“You are too bold,” Jiang said he recalled Che telling him. “Don’t you know that Bo is soon going to be the party chief of Liaoning Province, and after that he will be in the top leadership?” Jiang soon was detained and charged with subversion and stealing state secrets. He spent six years in prison before being freed and fleeing to Canada, where he now lives.
Jiang’s account is not easily verified, but such tales are not uncommon. Yang Rong, whose Brilliance China Automotive Holdings once was China’s largest automaker, found his stake of nearly $700 million in the company seized by Bo in 2002 after he proposed to build a new factory in Shanghai instead of in Liaoning. Yang, who now lives in the United States, later sued Bo and the government to no avail.
By then Bo had made several powerful enemies. His appointment in 2007, as party secretary of Chongqing, was in fact devised to move him out of Beijing and away from the seat of power. Two previous heads of China’s trade ministry, the Commerce Ministry’s predecessor, had gone on to become vice premier, a post Bo was said to crave. But one, Wu Yi, had come to dislike Bo’s abrasiveness and self-promotion; she sided with prime minister Wen Jiabao and others in shunting him to a job in the hinterlands.
Two people who know Wu said she was miffed by his grandstanding at a 2005 Washington session of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, where she had led a delegation of senior leaders. She was further put off after he opened a police investigation into the Commerce Ministry’s international affairs office, where she maintained close ties. And in talks with friends, she cited his enthusiasm for the more radical Red Guards as an especially sore point. “Wu Yi got him,” one longtime associate of Bo said. “She was instrumental, saying, ‘I step down in March; the guy is gone before I step down.’ ”
Using Fear as a Tool
Yet any expectation that exile and a consolation-prize seat on the Politburo would bank Bo’s ambitions proved misplaced. Instead, he reprized his Dalian agenda, spending billions to plaster the city with ginkgo trees, luring foreign investment, publicising his accomplishments – and spearheading an anticorruption drive that took on aspects of the Cultural Revolution purges that claimed his father.
Among the targets was Chongqing’s deputy police chief, Wen Qiang, whose 2010 execution on corruption charges prompted The Chongqing Economic Times to proclaim on its front page: “Wen Qiang is dead. The people rejoice. Chongqing is at peace.”
Though Wen was indisputably corrupt, many regarded execution as a draconian penalty, and some outsiders saw a veiled message from the ever-ambitious Bo. Wen had served under Bo’s two predecessors in Chongqing, Wang Yang and He Guoqiang. Wang was Bo’s rival for a spot on the Politburo’s elite Standing Committee. He already sits there – and he also runs the party machinery that investigates corruption and other violations of party rules.
Privately, the Wen execution was an implicit attack on their stewardship of Chongqing – “beating the dog while the master watches,” one person said.
Publicly, it was an excuse for a publicity campaign. The police chief at the time, Wang Lijun, summoned writers to produce a four-volume history of the corruption campaign, to be followed by a movie and television series.
Less than two years later – perhaps with Wen’s fate in mind – Wang fled to an American diplomatic outpost, begging for protection from Bo and setting off the events that produced his downfall. Among some, Wang was described at the time as unreasonably fearful, or even mentally unstable.
Now, his fears do not look so misplaced.
As Dalian’s mayor, Bo once became enraged after a Beijing businessperson, Su Xinmin, traveled to Dalian to lobby on behalf of a Dalian businessperson who was under investigation. One son of a Communist Party elder recalled a phone conversation in which an angry Bo declared that he would have Su arrested – and soon afterward, a corps of Dalian police officers went to Beijing, arrested Su and detained him in Dalian for nearly two months..
It was a trademark Bo gambit, except that Su was no stranger: He and Bo had spent five years together in the same Cultural Revolution labour camp, two sons of party leaders cruelly singled out for retribution.
“He would act this way toward a fellow son of a high official with whom he’d been imprisoned,” the party figure said. “So what’s Wang Lijun to him?”