Rapid fall from grace for former Communist Party ‘Princeling’

Bo Xilai finds himself isolated and alone in China’s trial of the century

Bo Xilai is almost certain to be found guilty when he stands trial on charges of corruption. Photograph: AP

Bo Xilai is almost certain to be found guilty when he stands trial on charges of corruption. Photograph: AP


Over the years, Bo Xilai has been a big-city mayor, a provincial boss, a jailed counter-revolutionary, a trade tsar and a Communist Party grandee. But on Thursday Bo, the maverick politician purged from the ranks of the Communist elite, faces his toughest task yet – standing in the dock as the accused in China’s trial of the century.

The 64-year-old is almost certain to be found guilty when he stands trial on charges of corruption, accepting bribes and abuse of power at a court in Jinan, Shandong province.

His wife, Gu Kailai, and his former protégé and police chief Wang Lijun were jailed last year over China’s biggest political scandal in years, after the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in November 2011, a crime for which Gu was convicted.

The knives were out for Bo at last year’s annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, when his usual assured demeanour was replaced with a hunted look, as his powerful political enemies gathered.

He was sacked soon after details of what happened were made public, and he has not been seen since. There have been various reports that he has grown a lengthy beard or has possibly gained weight in prison. He has never responded publicly to the accusations made against him.

Confident and good-looking, Bo fell foul of the technocrats that rule China these days, misjudging the mood in the elite and cultivating a populist image that was never going to wash with a Communist party still smarting from the excesses of the cult of personality that built up around Chairman Mao Zedong.

Bo Xilai is a “princeling”, a true Communist Party blueblood. His father, Bo Yibo, was the last of a group of party leaders who consolidated their power in the 1980s and 1990s, oversaw the Tiananmen Square massacre, and are known as the “Eight Immortals”.

Bo polished his reputation in recent years as the mafia-busting Communist Party chief in the southwestern city of Chongqing. He also engaged in a crackdown on corruption which alienated some of the powers-that-be in the city.

While in Chongqing, he also led a call for a return to old-fashioned communist values, and engaged in building low-cost housing.

This apparently set him on a collision course with other factions in the last government of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, and isolated him from the more reform minded constellation of the Standing Committee that was emerging around now-President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

Bo has been in prison before. When he was 17, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, he was imprisoned along with members of his family for five years, after which they were placed in a labour camp for another five years. During the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long period of ideological excess unleashed by Chairman Mao, Bo’s father was imprisoned and tortured for 10 years; his mother was reportedly beaten to death.

He worked at the Hardware Repair Factory for the Beijing Second Light Industry Bureau before he was admitted to the Peking University Department of History, majoring in world history. He later graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1982, he graduated from the Postgraduate Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences with a Masters.

Bo’s father was in charge of a Red Army unit called the “Shanxi Suicide Squad for the Liberation of China”, which fought first against the Japanese and then against the Kuomintang in the Civil War, which led to the Revolution of 1949.

His son, Bo Guagua, went to Harrow, then Oxford, then Harvard and is now reportedly planning to attend the expensive, elite Columbia Law School. There is speculation that Bo Xilai has cooperated with the investigators in the trial, as his wife did before him, to guarantee his son’s wellbeing.

During his time as mayor of Dalian – the Garden City – one of China’s most financially successful cities, statuesque women astride horses patrolled the city’s precincts. As mayor, Bo, according to local legend, used the tallest people to help rebrand one of China’s burgeoning cities, a pet project of his.

Earlier this year came the news that Dalian is considering abolishing its mounted policewomen unit, as the city distances itself from the purged leader.

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