The port city of Dalian’s transformation into a major metropolitan center corresponded with Bo Xilai’s long tenure as mayor, and his rise to power.
By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham
On Monday, a few dozen journalists assembled at a press conference in Guiyang to be told by local court officials what most of them had surely already figured out: China’s “trial of the century,” the prosecution of fallen politician Bo Xilai, was not taking place that day. The news reports that had sent media organizations scurrying to set up shop in Guiyang, a small city three hours southwest of Beijing that is part of Guizhou Province, were false; Bo’s trial date and location remain a mystery. The foreign correspondents who had made the trip didn’t return home with front-page stories about the country’s most eagerly anticipated courtroom appearance. Instead, they had to write about being sent on a wild goose chase.
The reporters’ willingness to travel all the way to Guiyang on the basis of thinly sourced reports might seem odd to the casual observer. But for those of us in the China-watching business, it’s understandable: Bo Xilai has not been seen in public since his spectacular fall from grace on the Ides of March last year. Once the Party Secretary of Chongqing and a potential candidate for the super-elite Politburo Standing Committee, Bo has since been stripped of his membership in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and accused of massive corruption, though the government has not yet filed formal charges against him. Whenever, and wherever, he is tried, Bo will assuredly be found guilty and face either life in prison or a death sentence.
Monday’s episode in Guiyang marks the most recent surreal twist in a story teeming with strange plot developments. Many of the events that led Bo to this point are shrouded in secrecy, perhaps destined to remain in CCP archives for decades to come. But saying that we don’t know everything about the scandal enveloping Bo and his wife, Gu Kailai, is a far cry from saying that we know nothing. Journalists spent much of 2012 digging through the tangled story of Bo, Gu, the murdered English businessman Neil Heywood, police chief Wang Lijun, and various power-holders at the top of the Chinese government (for what was known as of May 2012, see this earlier LARB Blog post by Jeff Wasserstrom). Thanks to the combined efforts of these tireless reporters, a fair amount of information has come to light, though I don’t think I realized just how much until I saw the story laid out in one place: John Garnaut’s short e-book, The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo.
Garnaut is a reporter for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald who has been writing on China’s “princelings” (taizi dang), the sons of legendary CCP founding figures, for years. House of Bo benefits immensely from his understanding of leading CCP families and the impact of personal relationships on elite politics. Many versions of the Bo-Gu story—including a forthcoming book—focus on Heywood’s murder, allegedly committed by Gu in an effort to protect her 25-year-old son, Bo Guagua, from blackmail by Heywood. Garnaut understands that Gu’s crime was sensational but comparatively unimportant, as it merely provided Bo’s opponents with a pretense to attack him; in his telling, the roots of Bo’s downfall can actually be traced to feuds and alliances stretching all the way back to the 1940s. Bo Xilai’s father, Bo Yibo, and Xi Zhongxun, the father of incoming Chinese president Xi Jinping, wound up on opposing sides during the Gao Gang Affair (the first major political split in the PRC) and the 1987 purge of Hu Yaobang. Their sons have circled each other warily throughout their careers. Though Xi once expressed support for Bo’s anti-corruption campaign in Chongqing, all traces of his favorable words have since been scrubbed from the Chinese Internet. But politics makes strange bedfellows: the two share a political patron in former CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin.
Garnaut does an admirable job of analyzing the forces that propelled Bo through his career, and the factors that contributed to his downfall. In many ways, it’s a not-uncommon tale of a power-hungry politician whose greatest mistake was believing himself invincible. But Garnaut also suggests that Bo was motivated, at least in part, by ideology and a genuine desire to restore the “red legacy” bequeathed by his father’s generation. Believing that the PRC’s founders had built something bigger and better than what China has become since the Reform Era began, Bo decided that it was his duty to lead a return to the core principles of the New China. And in a China where there’s a pervasive popular sense that something is broken, it’s easy to understand why people would flock to support a charismatic leader who had a clear vision of how to fix it.
Which is to say Bo Xilai might be down, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that he’s entirely out. I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that people in Chongqing still appreciate his efforts to clean up the city (never mind the fact that Bo was just as corrupt as the mobsters he imprisoned). His family, like many other princeling clans, has a history of political resurrection: Bo Yibo spent the Cultural Revolution in political exile, but returned to the inner circle during the Deng era. If things were to go south for the CCP and a back-to-the-basics ideological approach seemed the best way to fix the situation, it’s possible that Bo Xilai could be rehabilitated and his story could have a second act.
That’s a long shot of course. But in my view, there’s another reason why it’s premature to talk about “the fall of the house of Bo”: Bo Guagua, the only son of Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai, who played a central role in his mother’s downfall, despite not even being in China at the time. While Bo Guagua currently lives in the United States, there’s no reason to assume that his father’s one-time allies wouldn’t seek to bring him home if they should need the Bo name and the decades of history behind it at some point in the future. It’s also more than likely that Bo Guagua will ascend in his own right: a graduate of Oxford and Harvard, he’s the cosmopolitan, well-educated, well-connected scion of an elite family, and that’s a powerful combination in any context, regardless of his parents’ political status.
As Garnaut notes, Bo Guagua has been subject to “his family’s suffocating love and towering expectations” his entire life. As he expressed in an email to a friend, with his parents’ legal troubles effectively leaving him on his own, he now has “the chance to live my own life and make my own choices.” It’s difficult to imagine, though, that he would simply walk away from the dynasty his legendary grandfather founded and not try, somehow, to rebuild the House of Bo.
This post has been adapted from an earlier version that appeared at Maura Elizabeth Cunningham’s personal blog, The Wandering Life.