Communist purge that reads like a spy novel


An accusation that the wife of a former party high-flyer had murdered a British businessman exposes bitter divisions in China’s political elite, writes CLIFFORD COONANin Beijing

CHINA WAS buzzing with speculation yesterday about the dramatic upheavals at the centre of power, after one-time rising star Bo Xilai was purged and his wife was accused of murdering a British businessman.

This is a typical communist purge, but with 21st century characteristics; it reads like a cross between an episode of The Sopranos and an early John le Carré novel.

The expulsion will take down Bo’s whole family, including his wife, Gu Kailai, and son, Bo Guagua, and exposes bitter divisions in the political elite in China.

Neil Heywood was an associate of Gu Kailai and had other links to the deposed leader, including mentoring Bo Guagua. Heywood died in November in Chongqing of apparently natural causes, but Gu has been accused of having him killed.

Bo, who was sacked as party boss in Chongqing on March 15th, has been expelled from the politburo and the central committee of the Communist Party, and is being investigated by the party’s disciplinary commission.

The Communist Party’s official organ, the People’s Daily, ran an editorial saying that no one was above the law, which has convinced many that Gu is likely to suffer the full consequences of a trial.

Steve Yui-sang Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies and director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, spoke of the “slow-motion curtain coming down on Bo Xilai”.

“This has all got to do with Mr Bo and power politics. She is a suspect in a murder trial, so why state so clearly that her rank will not protect her. The way the People’s Daily article was written suggests she is already guilty – it’s politically driven,” Tsang said.

On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of the banned Twitter service, the words “Bo” and “Xilai” were banned terms, so people searched under “serious breach of the rules”.

Many of the comments were supportive of Bo, praising his success in introducing social housing and improving the environment. “This is not a good sign,” wrote one. “If political struggle heats up, where will this country go? Will there be deep reform, or just fuzzy reform, like ‘stepping stones across a river’?”

In the absence of hard facts, analysts are looking in the recent past for clues, when Bo’s former key lieutenant and security chief Wang Lijun sought asylum in the US consulate in Chengdu, the Sichuan capital.

Why did Wang go to the consulate in February, when he knew that he would be in serious trouble as a result of his actions, possibly executed for treason?

This after all is a politically driven and focused security chief, who reportedly said about the time of his arrest that he was “going down” and would take the “bastard” Bo with him.

A possible explanation is that while investigating Heywood’s death, he discovered something that made him so frightened that he made this almost suicidal decision to enter the consulate. The central authorities then saw the opportunity to build up a case against Bo.

“We don’t know if Mr Heywood was poisoned or murdered,” Tsang said. “The authorities seemed pretty sure he was not murdered 24 hours earlier. It’s possible that they are using the Heywood case to fix Bo.

“It would not surprise me to learn that Mr Heywood had died without it being murder, but since the body is cremated, there is not much evidence to prove murder or otherwise,” Tsang added. “It is almost impossible for Gu Kailai to have a fair trial.”

Ho-fung Hung, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, believes efforts to unseat Bo have been in the works since late last year, when investigators began sniffing around his associates in his former fiefdoms in Liaoning province and Dalian. “Bo Xilai’s enemies were investigating the people following him to find traces of corruption,” Hung said.

“Bo Xilai and his family handled this very badly. The death of a foreigner is a diplomatic issue beyond the control of Bo Xilai. To implicate in a high-profile way the wife of a politburo member in the murder of a foreign national is very serious.

“There is good reason to speculate that Mr Heywood knew something about Bo Xilai and his family,” Hung added. “Sometimes you have to give value to the speculation because the rumours have been there since the start, and the government now confirms these rumours.”

Hung added: “Also they mentioned Bo Guagua in the announcement, and that’s related to politics. They want to end the fortune and the career of a whole family. In recent history we cannot recall a prominent family being treated like this.

“Princelings always assumed they were free of the consequences of a power struggle. The game may be changing. This is beyond the path of a normal power struggle.”

The timing is not too bad for the top elite, as there are still months to go before the transition of power and everything could go peacefully.

“But it’s also possible that what happened to Bo could scare the princelings. It could be a Pandora’s Box that spirals out of control, we could have instability like we saw in 1988 and 1989, and it’s a bad time because the economy is headed in a bad direction,” Hung said.

“Mr Bo’s style is very individualistic. If he got into the standing committee of the Politburo, it’s a threat to everybody. This is the removal of a threat.”