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.


Wang 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.

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.

Bo Xilai made a name for himself for advancing so-called "leftist" politics; that is, a return to a more state-centric model for China's development. What did this have to do with his downfall?

First of all, I want to correct the common perception among Westerners that the Bo Xilai case was a battle between the good and the evil, or a conflict between Maoist radicals and moderate reformists. My co-author and I don't believe that Bo actually cared about the Maoist tradition; he simply saw it as an avenue to gain popular support by appealing directly to the people. It was, simply, another brand of politics. Bo was able to capitalize on a general trend toward state involvement in the economy, launched by Hu Jintao, as well as general public anger about income inequality and rampant corruption.

I don't believe for a minute Bo believed in what he was doing, and neither did Premier Wen Jiabao with his so-called "liberal" ideas, really. I mean, Bo sent his son to Harvard to study political science while encouraging Chongqing's population to study Maoism. Wen Jiabao espoused liberal democratic reforms, but no political reforms was implemented under his rule. He advocated a clean government while his family was making millions of dollars through their political connections.

Ultimately, there aren't really any liberals in the Chinese political system. Everything boils down to personal interests, and no matter what they say, none of the Chinese leaders want political reform so long as they're in power. They look at what happened with the Arab Spring, with Hosni Mubarak, all the score settling, and they fear that they're going to end up in jail.

What do you think will be Bo Xilai's legacy? Is it all negative?

No, we are seeing a couple of positive repercussions. First of all, the case has enabled the public to see how rotten the political system is and how hypocritical Communist Party officials are, prompting them to pressure the new leadership to change.

This is really the first time the foreign media has become deeply involved with Chinese politics. In the past, when something like the Bo Xilai scandal broke out, you wouldn't hear about it until later, but now it's different. Social media sites like Weibo were abuzz with reports, in spite of censorship efforts, and it was almost as if events were unfolding in real time. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Guardian and The Telegraph were all there covering the case, with information provided by insider sources. Their reports were then filtered back to China, forcing the government to respond, which in itself was a positive development. Basically, the foreign media played a role that the Chinese media couldn't.

What do you think they're going to do about Bo?

Bo's pending trial, eagerly awaited by the media, will now matter less to the Chinese leadership, which has already moved on. But, the new leaders will use Bo's punishment for a new purpose -- showcasing the party's determination to clamp down on corruption and abuse of power. Since the courts are subordinate to the party, Bo's trial will likely be a mere formality or highly choreographed affair, and no matter how vigorously his lawyers defend him, he'll almost certainly be found guilty. Regardless of what type of prison sentences that Bo will get, one thing is for sure -- they will never allow him to get out and stage another comeback.

Are Chinese people getting more interested in politics?

After Tiananmen Square people got so busy making money that they became cynical and jaded about politics. But the Bo Xilai scandal has really energized people. When I visited China last year, almost everyone I met had heard something about the case on Weibo, and some were even using a proxy server to access foreign media to read about it. More Chinese people are now interested in the political process than before, something that makes the government nervous.

What ultimately did you want your readers to take away from your book?

What we tried to do was to take a step back from the scandal and look at it with a very detached way. We were interested in giving Western readers a broader context, a sense of how the inner Party apparatus works, to give them a very objective assessment of what's happening in China now. Through this, when they read about political events happening in China, they will have a better understanding of how things really work.