Bo Yibo

Last of the 'Eight Immortals'
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Bo Yibo, politician: born Dingxiang, China 17 February 1908; married Hu Ming (died 1967; five sons, two daughters); died Beijing 15 January 2007.

Bo Yibo was the last of the powerful group of Chinese Communists known as the "Eight Immortals", who served in numerous key positions and backed the crackdown on democracy protesters on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Born in Shanxi Province in 1908, Bo joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at the age of 17, and rose to power as a key figure in Mao Tse-tung's army during the civil war and 1949 revolution. He was the party's oldest senior member when he died and continued to wield a lot of influence in the allocation of top posts until recently. His son Bo Xilai is China's commerce minister. An official statement on the Xinhua news agency said he died "of illness" in Beijing. "Bo was an excellent CCP member, a great Communist warrior, a great proletarian revolutionary and a prominent leader in the party's economic work," ran the statement.

Bo was a veteran of the Long March, the epic 5,000-mile trek that saved the Communist forces from destruction during the civil war. Participation in that tactical retreat is the true badge of honour when it comes to establishing the best Communist credentials.

During the Second World War, Bo set up 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. He also oversaw the incorporation of the forces of warlord Yan Xishan into the Red Army, who provided more than 200,000 troops to the Communist forces.

After the Communists swept to power in 1949, Bo was instrumental in efforts to rebuild the country's economy, and during his career he was a Politburo member, deputy prime minister, chairman of the State Economic Commission and vice-chairman of the Party's Central Advisory Commission. He was also elected honorary president of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade.

Accused of being a pro-Western capitalist roader who favoured trade with the West, Bo with his family suffered harsh treatment during the Cultural Revolution. He was purged by Mao's wife Jiang Qing and spent 15 years in jail. Bo's wife was beaten to death in prison and their children also suffered. Three sons and daughters - Bo Xiyong, Bo Xilai and Bo Xicheng - were jailed at the ages of 16, 17 and 17, while a fourth, Bo Xining, was sent to the countryside at 14.

Bo was an ally of Deng Xiaoping, who also fell out of favour during the Cultural Revolution. With the death of Mao in 1976 and the jailing of Jiang Qing and other members of the Gang of Four, Deng became paramount leader and launched China's economic reforms.

Bo's links to Deng, and to his successor Jiang Zemin, saw him become one of the "Eight Immortals", a group of elderly revolutionaries within the Communist Party who held substantial power during the 1980s and 1990s. The "Eight Immortals" refers to a Taoist concept, but in Chinese they are called the Eight Great Eminent Officials or Eight Elders. Bo was widely believed to have used his seniority to help his son Bo Xilai's ascent through the ranks to commerce minister, although he was twice rejected from entering the Central Committee.

In the summer of 1989, Bo supported the decision to send in troops to crush the student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing, centred on Tiananmen Square, when thousands are believed to have been killed. The Communist Party maintains the protests were an attempt to oust them and says the use of military force was necessary to maintain stability.

Bo also played a role in the resignation of Hu Yaobang as general secretary of the party in 1987. Hu's death in April 1989 was one of the factors behind the democracy movement that led to the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Bo was known for his wry sense of humour. During a visit to Beijing once, the former US Secretary of State Alexander Haig gave an outline of Ronald Reagan's plans to deregulate and decentralise the US economy. Bo, then vice-premier in charge of China's economic policy, is supposed to have quipped: "Your programme sounds just like ours!"

Clifford Coonan