Hotel Room Murders and the People’s Kleptocracy of China

April 20, 2012 • Blogs, The Globalist Notebook • Views: 764

by Aube Rey Lescure

Neil Heywood helped the Bo family “here and there,” he told his British expat friends. Some business ventures, he said, though he remained vague on the details. Also some ‘favors,” such as getting Bo Xilai’s son Bo Guagua into the elite British prep school Harrow, Heywood’s own alma mater.  The relationship between Heywood and the Bo family, it seemed, was a symbiotic one: Heywood married a Chinese woman in the city of Dalian, where Bo Xilai was mayor in the 90s, and earned enough money to sustain his own luxury yacht-and-Jaguar filled lifestyle, with a little added fuel from the Bos.

Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai now both face investigation and the end of a promising career (Flickr Creative Commons)

Then Heywood was found dead in a hotel room in Chongqing last year. His family never got to see the body, as it was promptly disposed of by the Chongqing authorities. The official report cited alcohol poisoning.

The incident received moderate press coverage back in 2011. Russia might fight to the last judge standing when the U.S. convicts a Russian arms dealer, but the UK wasn’t too hot about stirring international melodrama about a dead citizen who drank himself dead abroad.

Poor Heywood probably turned in his grave (or, more realistically, his surreptitiously-dug hole in the Chongqing wilderness) for over a year as the Bos went about their regular (shady) business. Bo Xilai was, until recently, viewed as a favorite in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership turnover. If you must name one political superstar in Chinese politics for the past decade, then Bo would be your man. With suave, movie poster looks that mix vague benevolence with intelligence, Bo’s countenance in itself is much more striking than the army of wobbly-chinned grandpas that constitute the Politburo Standing Committee. The ex-mayor of Dalian gained heroic prominence when he cracked down on the gangs-gone-wild city of Chongqing as he assumed the party chief position in the western Chinese metropolis. Soon all ranks of Chongqing officials underwent a purge and gangs were neutralized. Bo mixed in some more ideological elements to his tenure by adopting a neo-Marxist stance and greatly promoting “red” materials and books of all kinds.

And then, last month, a scandal arose right in the midst of the CCP’s National People’s Congress when Bo’s former police chief and subordinate Wang Lijun went to the American consulate in Chengdu and exposed high-level party secrets—accusing Bo Xilai’s wife Gu Kailai of orchestrating Neil Heywood’s murder because of some “business deals gone sour.”  Much juicier information about CCP leadership conflicts and divisions was probably also unveiled, but naturally the American consulate kept that in its own files and only publicized the Gu/Heywood mystery. The whole episode ended quite tragically for police chief Wang Lijun, who asked for sanctuary in the consulate after revealing state secrets, which was denied, and he was soon arrested by Chinese police for treason and never seen again.

Bo Xilai was immediately suspended from the CCP for mismanagement of his family (wife potentially murdering foreign citizen) and staff (police chief running off to U.S. Embassy to reveal state secrets). The nation went into shock because Bo was a living legend, a true populist hero, one of those party chiefs who actually fought the bad guys instead of milk his citizens. With the shock, though, came a certain simultaneous lack of surprise: who really believes that uncorrupt officials exist in the People’s Republic of China? Businessmen getting cleaned off the scene because of shady liaisons with ruling officials must be a weekly if not daily occurrence across China. It just becomes a case the CCP cannot ignore when the police chief of a major city goes to the American embassy to tell on their dirty laundry. Wang, whether he is dead or alive, was very innovative and intelligent as well as a true martyr in a sense: telling any other media outlet in the country about his secrets would just have resulted in suppression and effective suicide on his part. Going to the Americans was the only way his story was going to get any attention, plus he at least had a marginal chance of obtaining sanctuary. He didn’t, because even though the Americans knew they were sending him to his death as they let him out the gates, getting embroiled in a political drama isn’t exactly of any strategic interest to the State Department right now. The U.K. itself was also reluctant to jump on the international media uproar boat and simply made a statement commending the Chinese investigation of Heywood’s death. No public opinion card concerning Sino-British relations and the murder of a U.K. citizen by the family of a high profile communist official was played by London.

The CCP dealt with the scandal by making Xinhua issue an official report on the case which stressed the CCP’s intolerance for corruption (etc., etc.,) that got reprinted in virtually every single newspaper in China. After Bo was officially suspended, a character assassination campaign ensued so that the CCP could be seen as the impartial chastiser of even the most beloved party officials. Bo, by all means, was a politician who did try to make a difference on the political scene, and his downfall reflects a fundamental characteristic of CCP rule: corruption eventually reaches even the most well-meaning officials. Once an official takes up a post, there will be bribes and offers; and if the official refuses then his refusal destabilizes a broader network of interests which his predecessor had maintained: inevitably, the official who does not conform to the pre-existing web of corruption will be chastised and gotten rid of through, for example, the bribing of his superiors.   CCP officials do not necessarily start out corrupt, but Chinese politics is so corrupt at all levels that not letting certain interest groups have their way is guaranteed self-destruction; and ultimately the official either caves in or is replaced. The Bo affair is a textbook case demonstration of China’s deep structural problems, and tells the story of a mostly good man who had to conform to a mostly awful playing field.

Aube Rey Lescure ’15 is in Davenport College.  She is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger on E.U. affairs.  Contact her at aube.reylescure@yale.edu.

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