Sunday, August 18, 2013

Vacation-style medical treatment

I've been wanting to write a post about the Bo Xilai scandal, which has to be one of the strangest, most over-the-top political scandals of all times. In fact, I wanted to rip it off for the plot of my next book, but I decided that no one would believe it. Even trying to write a post about it boggled my mind, because it's so bizarre. But here's a brief whack at it.

Bo is the former Mayor Party Secretary of Chongqing and was a very powerful fellow who had ambitions of becoming a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest decision-making body in China, and maybe even premier or president, and he might have done it. He was charismatic, popular, a guy who used old-style Maoist propaganda and "Red Songs" to appeal to the masses of Chinese who feel left behind in the current "to get rich is glorious" hyper-capitalism that runs the country these days. Bo had the reputation of a man who got things done, who cleaned up Chongqing, cracked down on organized crime and corruption. He combined this with the outspoken, glad-handing style of an American politician, something of which the gray men of the CCP did not approve, accustomed as they are to doing things behind the scenes and by consensus.

Gu Kailai and Bo Xilai

Then it all fell apart. His anti-corruption campaign was as corrupt and as lawless as the forces it fought against. The nod to Maoist propaganda frightened many who'd been through Maoist excesses like the Cultural Revolution, even though Bo mostly seemed to be using this as a way to rally the masses, as opposed to resurrecting struggle sessions, violent battles between different factions of Red Guards and "Smashing the Olds."

And then his wife, Gu Kailai, a lawyer once known as the "Jackie Kennedy of China" murdered a British businessman.

At least, that's the story.

The victim, Neil Heywood, was a man with longstanding ties to the Bo's. He was a fixer of sorts who helped get their son, Guagua, into Harrow. He also is suspected to have helped the family move millions out of China and into offshore accounts. Oh, and there's a villa in Cannes involved. None of which is out of the ordinary for prominent Chinese politicians and the wealthy, for reasons beyond  corruption (though there is a LOT of corruption) -- many do not believe that their money is safe in China, and their lack of confidence in the long-term stability of the country might give pause to those who are convinced that China will rule the world.

But I digress.

Bo Guagua

The story goes that Heywood and Gu Kailai had a falling out, with Heywood demanding more money for his services and threatening to reveal the family's overseas business dealings. On top of that, Gu Kailai feared that he endangered her son. So, naturally, she lured Heywood to a Chongqing hotel, where she and an assistant poisoned him with cyanide. 

Neil Heywood

If this is what happened, she might have gotten away with it, if not for the head of the Chongqing Police Department (and vice-mayor of Chongqing), Wang Lijun. 

If you're thinking this sounds like the kind of murder story where a heroic police chief defies and confronts the powerful in his pursuit of the truth, well, not exactly.

Wang Lijun

Wang had been Bo's right hand during the crackdown on organized crime (and people Bo didn't like—the crackdown had also served as as a handy way to extort millions from businessmen on the wrong side of the political fence) but apparently they'd had their own falling-out, which might have been precipitated by corruption on Wang's part, or because he'd investigated Heywood's death and discovered the involvement of Mrs. Bo in same and confronted Bo with it. In any case, after being abruptly demoted by Bo, he fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, where he stayed for a day, possibly trying to defect, or maybe just looking for a safe refuge from Bo. He left on his own accord and was then escorted to Beijing by State Security. The Chongqing Municipal Government insisted that everything was fine and that Wang was undergoing "vacation-style medical treatment."

Gu Kailai was convicted of Heywood's murder last August. She received a suspended death sentence, and it's not clear how long she'll serve time. But even though the trial was a carefully choreographed affair, it had its own bizarre aspect. Namely, that the person standing trial was maybe not Gu Kailai. 


It's not uncommon for rich people in China to hire a person in need of money to stand trial and receive punishment in place of the accused, and when photos from the trail were published, rumors flew around the Chinese web that a body-double stood in Gu Kailai's place.

You be the judge

Meanwhile, Bo Xilai was stripped of his positions and thrown out of the CCP. His trial is expected to begin next week. The charges against him are expected to be taking bribes, embezzling state funds and abusing his power -- altogether, not as serious as some expected. But it was always a difficult line to walk. Bo was not only very popular and a leading representative of the "New Left" in China, he is also a member of CCP royalty, the son of one of the "Eight Immortals," revolutionary heroes who were highly influential in running the People's Republic until their deaths (Deng Xiaoping was one of their number).  Oh, and another one of the dynamics in all of this is that Bo's family warred with the family of the current president, Xi Jinping, and that Bo and Xi are long-time rivals. There's a nifty short book by John Garnault called "The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo" that explores this angle. 

The latest wrinkle? Well, three. Neil Heywood's mother has asked the Chinese government to compensate the family, particularly his two children, for his death. Bo Xilai's six brothers and sisters are quarreling about how the case should be handled and their relations with Gu Kailai's family (which is also a powerful "Princeling" family naturally).

Bo is said to be furious (not too surprising) — he didn't provide evidence against Kailai in her murder trial, even though they reportedly almost divorced a decade ago. But Kailai's motivation, supposedly, is to protect son Guagua from any prosecution by the Chinese government (Guagua has stayed in the U.S. through all of this). 

Mr. Bo, who didn't testify against his wife, is angered that she is now providing evidence against him and has threatened to disrupt proceedings and demand a divorce if she testifies in court, or via video, rather than in written form... 
"She will provide evidence--that can't be avoided--but the question is in what way," said one person familiar with the Bo family. "If she appears in court, who knows what could happen."
Given the facts of this case? I can't even begin to imagine.

Did I mention the French architect who also helped buy the Cannes villa and who once shared a residential address in England with Gu Kailai?



  1. Good googli-moogli, Lisa. Shades of Chiang Kai-shek! I have been following this story on NPR, but it has been coming out in dribs and drabs. Thank you for putting it in one place. You are right. You could not put this plot in a novel. Do we think whoever testifies at Bo's trial will be the real Mrs. Bo or the double? I say she won't show up in person. How could she, if she already has a stand in serving her time? In myriad ways, wonderful and awful, China boggles the mind!

  2. There was a story in our papers this week about a zoo in China that tried to pass off a Tibetian Mastiff as a lion. It worked for a few days until the 'lion' barked. But Bo puts the business of the 'lookylikey' in to a whole new league.

  3. What a tale. I've been exposed to bits and pieces of it too, but never heard the whole story. As for the appropriate vehicle for telling it to the world in a believable fashion, perhaps it's one of those things that simply must go directly to film. And if they can get Gerard Depardieu to play Dominique Strauss-Kahn, for sure Johnny Depp must be available for the role of Bo--or Gu, or both, or all of the above.

  4. I sure wish that American TV was not so resistant to doing stories with a primarily Chinese (or non-white of any sort) cast -- can you imagine the mini-series HBO or AMC would make out of this?

    1. Years ago, Bad Dave and I spent long nights at Amilal planning out a Chinese version of The Wire. (My contribution was to suggest that it would have to be about the real-estate industry, rather than drugs.) I'm pretty sure you could come up with a plausible transculturation of House of Cards by lightly fictionalizing the entirety of 2012 -- like, change a name or two maybe -- and calling it a day.

    2. Someone really needs to do it!

    3. Or set it in Hong Kong to distance the Mainland. Those corrupt Hong Kong people!

  5. The 替身/body-double speculation struck me as a bit out there for a few reasons:

    1) Why on earth would these guys allow her to get away?
    2) Months of Chinese prison food (potatoes, cabbage, mantou) will make anyone fat, even without the added factor of
    3) Anti-depressants and/or anti-psychotics in quantities sufficient to stop an incipient dynastic rebellion. By all accounts, Gu had had the bad crazy for quite some time before the whole Neil Heywood/Wang Lijun thing, and was quite manifestly bugfuck. Also:
    4) 1.6 billion people in China, access to basically unlimited amounts of money, and that's the best they could do for a look-alike?

    Meanwhile, the backstory for Gu Kailai is even weirder and more wonderful than has been generally acknowledged: Bo Xilai had previously been married to Li Danyu, the daughter of Li Xuefeng (Beijing's chief Party secretary and an alternate member of the Politburo -- obviously Bo couldn't just marry a commoner), but after meeting Gu Kailai he dropped Li like a regrettable three-year famin-- --er, natural disaster. Bo and Li had a son, Li Wangzhi (aka "Brendan Li," apparently -- sweet!), who now works at Citibank. Bo and Gu believed (or at least claimed to believe) that Brendan Li was the anonymous malefactor who slipped lead and mercury into Gu's herbal medicines, causing irreparable neural damage. The discovery of this in 2007 may have been one of the factors in Gu's subsequent conviction that people were out to kill her -- which, if the narrative about Neil Heywood's murder is true (something I wouldn't bet on), was what set the whole hotel murder plot rolling in the first place.

    Additional fun fact that I couldn't work in above: Gu went by the "English" name "Horus," as in "Horus, the Egyptian god born of Isis after she collected the dismembered limbs of her husband Osiris, fled her evil brother Set, and impregnated herself with a gold phallus." Her law firm was called "Law Office of Horus L. Kai."

    Bonus consideration: Bo's relatives are now telling anyone who will listen (which is to say, the SCMP) that everything was the fault of Gu Kailai, who was greedy and power-mad and etc. This is a plenty familiar trope: compare to the claims made about the empress Wu Zetian, or about the Empress Dowager Cixi, or -- especially! -- about Jiang Qing, the fall girl for the Cultural Revolution. Not to say that Gu isn't alsoa remorseless sociopath to whom conscience is a stranger -- pretty much everyone in that world is, I think -- but it's something to keep in mind all the same.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thanks for this, Brendan! I'd forgotten about the Horus part -- and I hadn't known that Son #1 was suspected of poisoning Gu!

      I agree with you about the body double. If you look at her the facial features seem to line up to Gu's, and, yeah, what would the motivation be to have let her do it? Unless she was so bat-shit that they were afraid of what she might do in a courtroom. But it's indicative of how crazy the system is that so many people believed it was possible.

      And yeah, the demonization of Gu is a very familiar trope indeed. It's only too bad that she didn't say she's was Bo's dog in her trial...

    3. Yes - the general lack of trust in the system is going to make the trial and the fallout therefrom very interesting to watch, particularly when you consider that Bo Xilai has still got a lot of fans -- some of whom are not even totally crazy. There are plenty of people in Dalian and Chongqing who think Bo was on their side, and that he got set up because his populist rhetoric ruffled too many feathers. The first comment I saw on the Jinan Intermediate People's Court's Weibo posting announcing the trial date was "一帮子秦桧审岳飞!" -- "A pack of quisling Qin Huis sitting in judgment on the loyal Yue Fei!"(This is going to be a bad couple of weeks for Weibo-based journalism, I can tell. Even I'm doing it.)

      The delay in bringing Bo to trial is very telling: there are a lot of material interests, personal loyalties, and factional allegiances grinding against each other here, and Bo is obviously not going to go down without a fight.
      The system takes care of its own. They'll keep Liu Xia under illegal house arrest and sentence her brother to 11 years in jail on manifestly laughable charges without batting an eye -- the concept of "shame" is alien to them -- but there's obviously been a ton of behind-the-scenes maneuvering to get even this relatively light set of charges against Bo. And probably with good reason: one of the things that the Garnault book makes clear is that Bo was exceptional only insofar as he was visibly ravening for power.

      So I'm making popcorn, anyway.

    4. Pop a batch for me, Brendan. I for one am looking forward to your Weibo journalism, since my Chinese ain't even close to up to the task.

      I forgot to mention the post-Bo purge coup rumors, too.

    5. And, yeah. For a supposedly "shame-based" culture, the ruling class doesn't seem to have much of it.

      Blog readers, if it was not abundantly obvious, Brendan is the real expert on this and so many other China topics. I'm thrilled to have his analysis here!

    6. Hi Brendan (Lisa told me to be sure to read your comments and I can see why!): I read in WSJ yesterday that Beijing is walking a fine line in trial: to send anti-corruption message, but not so severely as to lose support of other princelings.

    7. Dude, I'm just avoiding deadline work -- don't encourage me! But thanks.

    8. I live to aid you in your procrastination, Brendan...

    9. AHHH! And another thing? The herbal medicine she was taking was Tibetan caterpillar fungus!

  6. And I thought politics were strange HERE!

  7. I have been working on a blog about cable network miniseries. I think I will put it up next week. With copious references to this story. As for cherchez-la-femme, as far as I can see, it is almost never the evil consort who is the real villain.

  8. One thing in Bo's favor -- Bo GuaGua looks like an upstanding son of the revolution.

    Can't help but wonder what would Mao have done if someone had slipped this picture back through time to say. "This is where The Long March actually leads."

    1. He's no doubt spinning in his grave so hard that he's digging a hole to America.

    2. To be fair to Guagua...oh, never mind, why should I? I'm sure he's no worse than many of these Hong Er Dai kids and probably better than some.

  9. Thanks for writing this all up-- I had been following the story on and off since the murder made the news, but I hadn't been able to make heads or tails of a lot of it. Just when you think it can't get any crazier. . .

  10. Speechless. Just shaking my head, because, no matter HOW far out there you think humans are, there's always more that are twice as far from the trunk!

  11. Great account! But Bo was actually party secretary (i.e. chief) of Chongqing, with Wang Hongju and then Huang Qifan serving as mayor under him. He'd previously been mayor of Dalian.

    1. Ack, thanks Samuel! I'll see if I can remember how to make strike-outs on my keyboard and correct that.