With its mix of murder, politics and financial intrigue, the Bo Xilai case has all the makings of a bestselling novel. In fact, there’s probably a screenwriter somewhere working on a film version – although it probably will never show on China’s 11,000 cinema screens.
Now, after copious investigative journalism, the fuller chronology of Bo’s fall is becoming clearer. In particular, the New York Times has been shedding new light on one of the central mysteries behind Bo’s purging: why the former Chongqing Party boss fell out with his erstwhile police chief, Wang Lijun.
Readers will recall our coverage of Wang Lijun’s flight to the US consulate in issue 138. This shock event proved the catalyst for Bo’s subsequent dismissal from Chongqing and then the Politburo.
But the major puzzle was this: why would Wang desert Bo? After all, his own career had been made working at Bo’s side. Should his boss fall, Wang’s own prospects would also inevitably weaken.
Last December (in WiC131) we looked at the demise of a Shandong official and quoted the Chinese maxim to ‘Beat the dog and watch its owner’.
This described a facet of Chinese political life: rather than attack a boss directly (such as Bo), rivals would often seek first to purge his lieutenants.
It turns out this is exactly what happened with Bo and Wang. The New York Times reports that both men had a taste for wiretapping and liked to listen in on what rival Party officials were saying. But their eavesdropping went too far when they bugged a conversation between a minister visiting Chongqing and China’s president, Hu Jintao.
When Bo’s political enemies discovered his mistake, they used it as the justification to get the Party’s central disciplinary team to probe Wang.
Both men knew they were in trouble, although the New York Times quotes a senior Party newspaper editor as saying Bo wanted to “push the responsibility” to Wang.
That explains Wang’s motivation for fleeing to the US consulate. He felt he’d been deserted by his boss and would end up as the patsy.
But there was more to it than the fraying of loyalties, as Wang also knew where the bodies were buried. Prior to his desperate flight from Chongqing, it seems he told Bo that he had evidence that his wife Gu Kailai had murdered Briton Neil Heywood in November. This was his trump card, designed to ensure that Bo found a means to protect him from the wiretapping investigation.
When it became clear that Bo had deserted him regardless, Wang feared for his own life. He raced to the US consulate in Chengdu, staying inside for almost 24 hours. The duration of his stay was important: any longer and he would have been considered a traitor; but he also needed to be there long enough to get the attention of Beijing.
He succeeded: when Wang walked out of the consulate he was picked up by security personnel from the central government, despite the close attentions of Bo’s own security detail. In Beijing Wang would be safe from Bo and could also attempt a ‘plea bargain’ of sorts – giving investigators evidence against his former boss.
This was then used as the means to remove Bo. The Sunday Times reports that this was to happen at 2pm on April 9 when he was visited at his home by He Yong, a senior figure in the Party’s central disciplinary commission and Zhang Jinan, vice-minister of the organisation department.
Bo then asked to call his family, but was informed that his telephone line had already been cut. “I’ve long prepared for this moment but it has still come as a surprise,” he is said to have told them.
Bo was driven off in a black limousine and into detention. Which brings us to another part of the saga, also involving a car: a red Ferrari. Famously, this symbol of excess was said to have been driven by Bo’s son, Guagua. But the New York Times has cleared this allegation up too. It turns out that former US ambassador Jon Huntsman was the source of the anecdote, and that it’s not true. Guagua took Huntsman’s daughter to a bar in a black Audi.
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