Bo Guagua: The student playboy whose lavish lifestyle could be his downfall - as father Bo Xilai faces prosecution


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The Independent Online

His father’s political implosion will soon pass into Chinese folklore, as will the machinations of his mother, who has been convicted of murdering a British businessman to cover up a web of corruption.

But as the high profile trial of Bo Xilai - once tipped for Chinese Communist Party leadership - draws to a close, the fate of his wayward son Bo Guagua seems precarious.

He has failed to shake off his reckless playboy image, which caused substantial embarrassment for the Chinese government. From a Western perspective, Guagua may well seem a charismatic figure with a healthy interest in pretty girls and late-night parties. But while such puerile stunts as cavorting in sports or being photographed apparently urinating on an Oxford college’s front gate may raise few eyebrows in Britain, they are a shocking departure from protocol in the socially conservative Far East.

Now enrolled at Columbia Law School after a checkered period at Oxford and Harvard, the fun-loving Guagua is in an unenviable position. He can return to his homeland, where both parents face lengthy prison sentences, or try to build a new life of exile in the United States.

The former could already be in jeopardy, with one Chinese government-owned newspaper calling for him to be hauled back to Beijing on corruption charges. It has fuelled speculation that Guagua, though he played no direct role in his parents’ crimes, may have unwittingly benefited from their allegedly ill-gotten gains to fund a gilded lifestyle at top universities across the globe.

Now he risks paying the price for infuriating Party leaders, and in spite of all that has befallen the son of one of China’s most powerful men, some fear the worst is yet to come.

Guagua kept a low profile during his father’s trial, but his allegedly decadent lifestyle cropped up repeatedly. He has rejected the playboy label in various press statements, even claiming in one interview with a Chinese newspaper that he lived in a north Oxford 'slum area' while studying politics, philosophy and economics at Balliol College.

Yet few are fooled by the 25 year-old’s insistence he leads a frugal life, least of all those who crossed Guagua’s path during his spending spree at Oxford. Champagne parties in his college room were a regular fixture on the social calendar, while one former classmate recalls how Guagua purchased membership of the University’s Conservative Association with a crisp fifty pound note, taken from a wallet stuffed full of them.

My own student newspaper at Oxford had a keen interest in the Chinese boy wonder and made him a regular feature of its gossip column, splashing again and again on his escalating largesse.

'One is hard pressed to find a better microcosm for Chinese-Western relations than the terminally spending Guagua Bo,' one entry reads. 'He topped the most recent round of student elections and is currently investigating whether he could install a Jacuzzi in the President’s office, for when the time comes.'

Another alludes to Guagua’s lofty connections in the Chinese political sphere. Featured in a list of the University’s most notorious students, his profile quips: 'His grandfather was part of Mao’s inner circle and his father is a Chinese government minister. Now Bo is looking for a Cultural Revolution in Frewin Court (Oxford’s debating society premises) and preparing a lengthy list of degenerates in need of re-education.'

His charisma and seemingly fathomless pockets even led to the coinage of a new verb at Oxford, 'to Guagua', meaning 'to seize power through smooth pleasantries, overwhelming financial might and the uncertain knowledge of what will happen to your family if you fail to please'.

Then there was the issue of Guagua’s 'strained relationship with books', as the student newspaper put it. It was a relationship that landed the then-undergraduate in hot water with his tutors and saw him suspended from the University for not working hard enough.

“The Chinese ambassador came to Balliol with some Chinese secret service guys to say that it was embarrassing for his father,” a former classmate told The Mail on Sunday shortly after the Bo Xilai scandal erupted. Amazingly, being excluded from the university did not prevent him sitting exams and receiving a 2:1 degree, spawning rumors of special treatment for one of Oxford’s most well-heeled students.

Yet money cannot protect him from the wrath of his homeland’s Communist rulers, for whom recently published photos of the young 'princeling' partying in New York may well be the last straw.

The outlook is bleak: stranded abroad and hounded by the media, his parents are in jail and Beijing has sent warning that they would like him to join them.

Ostensibly his connection to the family corruption is the hook China will use to attempt to drag Guagua back to the mainland. But some netizens on Chinese social media are convinced it is also payback for the international embarrassment the young Mr Bo’s cavorting and partying has wrought on the government.

Should they prove to be correct, Bo Guagua’s early years could become the government’s pet cautionary tale for Chinese teenagers, writ in large characters and international intrigue, of the Facebook generation’s lack of foresight when it comes to sharing their lives with the masses online.