He came as close to supreme power as anyone in China in the past 20 years. But then his attempt to cover up the murder of a British businessman brought the whole gleaming edifice crashing down around his ears. And now Bo Xilai, China’s lost leader, is to stand trial for bribery, corruption and abuse of power.
So many flowers of hubris and ambition are entwined in this story that it is hard to know whether the moral to be drawn from it is about the lingering power of the communist aristocracy, the enduring popular resonance of Maoist rhetoric, or the Macbeth-like aura of China’s most thrusting power couple. Then there is the victim whose horrible death triggered the whole tragedy: Neil Heywood, the old Harrovian who happily played out the role of a second honourable schoolboy, rolling round Beijing in a Jaguar with “007” in the number plate.
The essential facts are as follows. Both of them children of revolutionary heroes, Bo Xilai and his wife, Gu Kailai, were close to the pinnacle of power in November 2011. As party chief in the huge city of Chongqing, Bo had taken a dramatically different tack from the bosses of other cities, launching a brutal assault on the gangsters he claimed were running the city, arresting thousands and torturing not a few. He also spent huge sums of public money on social housing, and instigated a revival of Maoist songs and Little Red Book slogans. All this brought him the sort of mass popularity that few Chinese leaders enjoy: he seemed poised for election to the nine-member standing committee that runs China. Meanwhile, his wife was allegedly using Heywood’s good offices to make a fortune from property deals in Hong Kong.
Heywood had also helped the to couple get their son Guagua into Harrow. But then there was a falling-out, probably over money, and Gu, whom Heywood once described to a friend as “an unforgiving empress”, murdered him in a Chongqing hotel with the help of a family retainer. The speed with which his body was cremated suggests an attempted cover-up. Then, months later, Bo’s deputy police chief burst into the US consulate in Chengdu, saying that Bo was trying to murder him.
Now, nearly a year after Gu Kailai was given a suspended death sentence for Heywood’s murder, it is Bo Xilai’s turn to stand trial. Why the delay? A trial of this sort in China is first and foremost a performance, even though it will be closed to the media and the public. Everything needs to be hammered down in advance, the outcome agreed and the cooperation of the accused secured, before it can start. The South China Morning Post reports that many of the top judges in Jinan, where the trial is to be held, had recently “disappeared”, suggesting that they were in talks with party officials about how the trial is to be run. Zhang Lifan, a political analyst, said: “Trials with high officials involved are always strictly managed by the party authorities. Bo has a strong character, so they have to make sure everything is under control and that he will not retract in the public trial.”
As with Gu Kailai, public curiosity about the case is likely to remain unsatisfied: why Heywood had to die, and what the true nature of the relationship of the three protagonists was, are likely to remain as frustratingly murky as they are now.
But there will be lessons to be learned from it, and perhaps the clearest one for those tempted to tread in Bo Xilai’s footsteps is that, 37 years after Mao’s death, the sort of personality cult which he enshrined remains political poison in the upper reaches of China’s Politburo. With his flamboyant good looks, his charisma, and his beautiful lawyer wife, Bo tried the ascent of China’s political Everest by the populist route. But in the end, the faceless ones found a perfect way to bring him down.
A potentially deadly game being played on the hills of Little Tibet
Ladakh, the “Little Tibet” in the highest corner of India’s Kashmir state, is a brilliant place to escape the inferno of the plains in summertime, but visitors are sometimes taken aback by the huge Indian army presence on these thinly populated Himalayan slopes. The troops have been there since the end of the war with China in 1962 in which China grabbed 38,000sq km of Indian territory.
Recent events suggest their presence may be more than decorative. India claims that China is testing its defences in the area, staging three military incursions in the past week. And bilateral talks were held in Delhi this week to try to restore calm.
One Indian analyst claims China’s activities are the prelude to a new war, with Beijing taking advantage of what he claimed was India’s state of unreadiness.
What is China’s game here? Perhaps it is so delighted with the success of its development projects on the rooftop of the world where, on 21 July, 18-year-old monk Kunchok Sonam became the 121st person to burn himself to death in protest, that it can’t wait to add Little Tibet to the big one.