|Bo Xilai complements the Shanghaiist|
by Jeffrey Wasserstrom
One of the many things that I like about the Los Angeles Review of Books is that we have a designated editor for noir. Be it hard-boiled, true crime or international espionage, I have always enjoyed unraveling the puzzles of a good whodunit. But the real force of such stories, at least when set in distant times or foreign places one has never been, is how they expose common patterns of life within a previously unfamiliar setting.
Looking back at my freshman year in college, I can honestly say that encounters with a detective novel and a true crime work helped steer me toward my chosen profession. No, I don’t solve — or commit — crimes for a living. But I might never have ended up with my actual day job of teaching and writing about Chinese history if I hadn’t been so entranced with the first class I took on China, and the assigned reading that went with it. One of the books was a novel featuring Judge Dee, a magistrate with a talent for deduction based on an actual bureaucrat who lived during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Reading The Chinese Bell Murders, by Robert Van Gulik, I was transported more than a millennium to a setting in which — to cite just one example that that has always stuck with me — the beggars were organized into a formal guild. The other book was The Death of Woman Wang, an elegantly crafted work of historical re-creation by Jonathan Spence, which begins with an earthquake, ends with a husband strangling his wife, and uses both of these dramatic events, as well as local folktales and mundane aspects of quotidian existence, to evoke the social and cultural dynamics of life in a Chinese county in the seventeenth century.
Lately, however, simply following the news about China has been enough to get me thinking about clues, suspects, poison and other standbys of my favorite sort of fiction, along with the plot devices and characters found in a related genre, the novel of intrigue and espionage. Enter the curious recent chain of events involving Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai: a year ago, this now-disgraced couple seemed to be living a charmed existence. Bo Xilai was Party Secretary of Chongqing — a giant metropolis in western China — and a member of the Politburo. Often described as a “Princeling” due to his status as the son of a revolutionary hero, Bo Yibo (who had been a prominent comrade in arms of Mao Zedong), he employed a variety of high profile tactics, from launching an aggressive drive to rid his city of organized crime to sponsoring the mass singing of “red songs” (Mao era anthems). Needless to say, Bo Xilai was ambitious, and sought to secure a spot on the all-powerful Standing Committee—the most important body within the Politburo and one that will have openings to fill this fall.
Meanwhile, Gu — Bo Xilai’s charismatic second wife — continued to gain prominence (and wealth) through her law practice and business activities, both domestic and international (with Singapore a particular focus of her deal making). Flash forward from mid-2011, when the growing popularity of Bo’s “red song” drive was making headlines, to the present, and all together different headlines: Bo has been stripped of all official positions and Gu is likely to face criminal charges. What happened to this stylish power couple in the new China?
Consider a few recent events:
- Wang Lijun, a close associate of Bo’s and one of the main enforcers in his crackdown on gangland, makes a mysterious visit to the American consulate in Chengdu. The word now is that he was seeking protection from his former patron Bo, after discovering and wanting to take action on evidence suggesting that Gu had been guilty of corruption and other forms of malfeasance.
- Soon after, Bo is forced out as Party Secretary of Chongqing, as rumors start to swirl that Gu played a part in the death of Neil Heywood, a Briton with a long resume of deal-making in Asia and close ties to the family (e.g., according to some reports he helped facilitate one of Bo’s son’s entrance into Harrow, the elite English prep school). It is unclear what led to tensions between Gu and Heywood, who was described by an English friend as resembling a character in a Graham Greene novel, but it has been disclosed that a falling out of some kind did in fact occur, leading to Gu’s implication. One explanation making the rounds in the rumor mill is that Heywood had threatened to expose efforts by Gu to move money acquired via graft to off-shore accounts.
- Most recently, journalists Jonathan Ansfield and Ian Johnson break the news of Bo’s alleged penchant for wire-tapping. Suspicions about his wife’s activities were one reason for Bo’s removal from all official duties, but the fact that he was caught listening in on the country’s other leading officials may have been another; a grievance that seems likely to have been exacerbated by still other factors, such as long standing factional divides and short term jealousy about Bo’s ability to capture the limelight.
Why was Heywood killed (if indeed he was murdered) and who profited most from his death? Certainly, suspicion is lying heavily on Gu’s shoulders but there may be other suspects, other motivations, and this tale could turn out, like many a mystery, to include a red herring or two. Not surprisingly, as the Bo and Gu stories continue to take one unexpected twist after another, noir allusions are flying fast and furiously in newspaper articles, magazine stories and Tweets. Here’s a selection of my favorites:
- China-born but now U.S.-based noir novelist and poet Qiu Xiaolong, who met Bo in passing when both were students, writes an op-ed claiming that what has been happening in China lately has been more bizarre than anything he has invented in his popular series of Inspector Chen novels. To invoke his fictional character is particularly apt in this instance, as Qiu’s plots often highlight shady deals struck between business people and bureaucrats in a country where popular anger at corrupt practices involving Communist Party officials and those related to them runs high. In the Bo saga, there have been a slew of accusations of influence peddling and revelations of family members taking up well-paid positions in the business world (one worked for Citicorp).
- David Henry Hwang, best known still as the author of M. Butterfly, reports being told by friends that they see parallels between Heywood and a figure in his most recent play, Chinglish. He writes of receiving messages suggesting that the Bo story seems like Chinglish with an Agatha Christie twist. One of the most consistently interesting commentators on Bo, Evan Osnos of The New Yorker, notes that “this true story can best be understood through the lens provided by fiction.” The plot of Chinglish resonates with current events, Osnos says, and it was through one of Osnos’ pieces that I first came across the reference to Heywood as a Graham Greene invention come to life.
- The phrase “Tinker, Tailor, Bo Xilai” appears in a Financial Times commentary and becomes a common Twitter hashtag.
- Lest we think John LeCarré the only writer of spy novels on people’s minds, Robert Ludlam is name checked by Timothy Garton Ash in an op-ed on Bo.
Evan Osnos has also, on a more serious note, reminded his readers of something well worth keeping in mind, lest we fall into the trap of exoticizing Bo’s case. American history has also had its share of real life tales of corruption that initially seemed to beggar belief, due to the way that hubris and misuse of power went hand-in-hand. J. Edgar Hoover did not just bug the phones of crime bosses but also those of civil rights leaders and elected politicians, and we too have had our share of cases in which people bent on making lots of money or extending their influence have made mind bogglingly underhanded deals. It is for good reason that Osnos recently traced the trajectory of the Bo Xilai story from a Le Carré phase to a far more reality-based “Enron” stage, finally arriving at a “Watergate” climax with the wiretapping report.
Thinking about comparisons to Enron and Watergate point to what is most meaningful about China’s biggest political scandal of the year. The tragedy of what is unfolding in China lies not so much in revelations about abuses of power taking place, as these can and do happen in so many political systems, but rather that those that occur in China still cannot be dealt with via mechanisms such as the Watergate hearings and Freedom of Information Act.
When many Americans think about the flaws of the Chinese government, they focus on the lack of national elections, but within the country itself, it is other gaps — of accountability, of transparency, of dependable information in newspaper and television reports — that often cause the biggest sense of failure. In this regard, perhaps it is less poignant that Bo was purged on the Ides of March (a famous day in the history of true crime narratives) than that the revelations of his wiretapping activities have synched up so closely with another phone-hacking scandal: the British investigation of the Murdoch media empire. In this case, the company’s less-than-ethical journalistic practices have forced a very powerful family to explain themselves not just to the British public, but to the world; revealing problematically cozy relationships with influential government officials, including more than one Prime Minister.
Meanwhile in China, the former insider and “Princeling” Bo faces his own form of public disgrace as his wife is implicated in the death of a foreigner. And yet his true activities remain cloaked in secrecy. While David Cameron, despite being leader of the British government, is being forced to answer tough questions about his past connections to Murdoch, no one gets to ask China’s top leaders to come clean on any sensitive question, such as why exactly Bo was dismissed from his positions and how widespread the sort of corrupt practices for which his family is now being excoriated are within the top echelons of the Chinese Communist Party.
Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom’s most recent books are China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, available in paperback and Kindle editions from Oxford University Press, and the forthcoming University of California Press anthology Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, which he co-edited with Angilee Shah. Wasserstrom is Chair of the History Department at the University of California, Irvine; Editor of the Journal of Asian Studies; a co-founder and regular contributor to The China Beat: Blogging How the East is Read; and an Associate Fellow at the Asia Society. He has contributed commentaries and reviews to various newspapers and to magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and the Nation.