Interview: Will the Bo Xilai Case Change China?

How the death of an expatriate businessman at a Chongqing hotel caused a political earthquake in the country.
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WangLijun.jpgWang Lijun, former police chief of Chongqing, stands trial for his role in the death of Neil Heywood (China Central Television/Reuters)

It seemed, initially, like an tragic accident: a British expatriate named Neil Heywood was found dead in his room at the Lucky Holiday Hotel in Chongqing, China, in late 2011, reportedly after a night of heavy drinking. But a few months later, the powerful police chief of Chongqing, Wang Lijun, staged a dramatic escape from the city, attempting to defect to the United States at its Consulate in nearby Chengdu. Before long, the story spiraled into China's most serious political scandal in a decade, and the career of one of the country's most ambitious politicians -- the former Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai -- came to an abrupt end.

As it turns out, Heywood's death was no accident. He was poisoned, on the orders of Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, and when the case came to light, not a single person involved emerged unscathed. Bo now sits in detention, awaiting trial for his role in the death of Heywood. After his (inevitable) conviction, will the issues surrounding the incident be resolved? Or did the rise and fall of Bo Xilai mark a turning point in China, after which issues of government power and corruption will no longer evade public scrutiny?

The journalist Wenguang Huang, a native of China, found that the Bo Xilai case provided an useful lens into contemporary Chinese society, one in which the appearance of authoritarian harmony cannot fully mask political intrigue. Along with his co-author Pin Ho, a fellow journalist, Huang wrote A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel, a gripping telling of the incident that would make for a great thriller novel -- if it weren't all true. I spoke with Wenguang Huang over the telephone about his book, the Bo Xilai incident, and how politics in China might change as a result of it.

One question while reading your book that struck me was this: was Bo Xilai an exceptional figure, an outlier? Or was he simply a part of the system and just happened to be the one who got caught?

In a way, both -- he was an exceptional politician and a part of the system. On the one hand, he was a very charismatic populist and one of the more capable regional officials under Hu Jintao. The social and economic programs that he initiated in Chongqing brought tremendous changes to the city. On the other hand, he was also an egomaniac who mastered a high-profile, American-style campaign approach toward the media. He basically ran into trouble by taking on entrenched business interests in Chongqing and he used his nationally-known anti-crime campaign to persecute political opponents and business people who refused to cooperate with him. Basically, his ruthless ambition and the excesses of his anti-crime campaign were seen as a threat by senior leaders in Beijing. They felt they had to get rid of this politician because he could jeopardize their own political and economic interest if he was allowed to enter the Politburo Standing Committee. The Neil Heywood murder case provided Bo's opponents with the perfect weapon to shoot him down.

Ultimately, there aren't really any liberals in the Chinese political system.

Bo wasn't the first one to fall -- look at  [former Beijing Party Secretary] Chen Xitong and [former Shanghai Party Secretary] Chen Liangyu, for example -- and he won't be the last either. There's a leadership transition every five years, with a big one every ten years, and without transparency and fair competition, more power struggles will occur and another Bo Xilai will emerge.

What about [Vice Premier] Wang Yang? He and Bo are often paired as opposites on the Chinese political spectrum, as well as equally ambitious politicians. Could Wang be due for a fall?

If China does not initiate political reforms, no official will feel safe and anyone can fall victim to political power struggles. However, from what we have seen so far, Wang Yang seems to have a bright future. He was a top candidate for the Politburo Standing Committee and now he's a Vice Premier. In comparison with Bo, he's more circumspect. Bo felt that, as a Princeling, whose father founded the Communist China along with Mao Zedong and whose family suffered so much during the Cultural Revolution, he deserved to rule the country. He had a tremendous political network and this made him overly confident and arrogant. Wang, by contrast, is known for his modesty. He started out as a worker in a food processing factory and gradually worked his way up. He was known for implementing liberal economic policies in Guangdong Province and was more accommodating to village protesters. So I don't think Wang is susceptible to the fate of Bo Xilai.

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Matt Schiavenza is a former associate editor at The Atlantic

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