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The political explosion of Bo Xilai

Disgraced former Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai, and his wife Gu Kailai, who has been convicted of murder.

Disgraced former Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai, and his wife Gu Kailai, who has been convicted of murder. Photo: Reuters

He was the rock star of Chinese politics and his fall from the stage was spectacular.

In March of each year, the Chinese capital comes to a standstill for the 10-day gathering of the National People's Congress at the Soviet-designed Great Hall of the People. Traffic is blocked, vagrants are swept from the city, lawyers and intellectuals are sent away or detained and media censorship steps up an extra gear, while journalists from the Xinhua News Agency interview their foreign counterparts about this showcase of democracy.

The fuss seems out of proportion for a legislature appointed by the Communist Party and which has never rejected a lawbill put before it. In recent years there have been, however, two flickers of transparency and political showmanship that the Beijing press corps learned to look forward to.

One was the closing press conference presided over by the leadership's one advocate for democratic reforms, Wen Jiabao, which was the only opportunity that journalists had to ask real questions of a top-ranked leader and to expect a meaningful reply. The other was the appearance of Wen's ideological adversary: the rock star of Chinese politics, Bo Xilai.

At the time of the 2012 Congress Bo Xilai was a provincial leader who was not a member of the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, and yet he seemed to be setting the national political agenda. Since being sent to run the Yangtze River metropolis of Chongqing in late 2007 he had draped himself in neo-Maoist iconography and led an orchestrated craze of "red singing" of patriotic revolution-era songs across the nation. He had attracted unprecedented praise from several of his superiors –most notably from the incoming president, Xi Jinping –for a war he was waging against corruption, inequality and mafia-state collusion. He was seen as the custodian of the Party's revolutionary ideals, fighting to live up to Mao's instruction to "serve the people", at a time when the Party and the country had lost its way.

He had become the poster boy for socialism's true believers and a magnet for all who were attracted to the lure of rising power. Some who had grown up and risen through the ranks with Bo believed he wanted to ultimately eclipse Xi Jinping and become the most powerful man in China after the leadership transition of November 2012.

In previous years, Bo had been mobbed at the National People's Congress by the Hong Kong media. This year even local Chinese journalists swarmed to see him perform, although they would never be able to report a word, because they knew they would be watching history being made.

At this point, only a select few with high security clearances in China, the United States and close US allies were privy to the sordid allegations of bribery, brutality and murder that Bo's recently sacked police chief, Wang Lijun, had been levelling against the Bo family.

But everybody knew the great red hope of Chinese politics was in trouble and that his enemies were circling. "The climate in Chongqing is very different from the climate in Beijing," He Guoqiang, the head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, had warned Bo and his supporters in the Chongqing room of the Great Hall, only days before.

"So I hope that everyone will take care against the cold and stay warm, and be careful to stay healthy."

Bo kept the media waiting for the first week of the Congress, skipped an important public session, and then on March 9 appeared without the customary notice in the Chongqing room. He was clearly tired, looking pale with bags under his eyes, after late-night sessions rallying his colleagues and negotiating his fate.

But there was no hiding the prodigious charisma and self-belief that had helped him to mobilise a large corner of the country, independent of central command, in a way that no other leader had done since 1949.

Wearing a sharp navy suit and yellow tie, he sat with his back against a spectacular photo-backdrop of Chongqing's neon skyline, as if to remind the crowd of the phenomenon he had built, while camera flashes lit up the room.

A month earlier, Wang Lijun, Bo's former police chief and legendary right-hand man, had shown so little trust in both his patron and the Chinese justice system that he had fled into the arms of China's great rival, at the US Consulate in nearby Chengdu.

Earlier that week, President Hu Jintao had revealed his view of both Wang and the Americans by telling delegates that Wang had "betrayed the country and gone over to the enemy", according to a Chinese intelligence official. Journalists assembled at the Great Hall expected that even Bo Xilai would have trouble spinning this one.

Bo donned a pair of spectacles to read perfunctorily from an official statement. "First, I'll give you a standard response," he said, without hiding his disdain for having to stoop to the vacuous Party-speak that was standard fare for most of his colleagues, except Premier Wen Jiabao. "Wang Lijun is being investigated by the relevant central agencies . . ."

Then he set aside his prepared statement, took off his glasses and made eye contact with the journalists who had jammed in to see him, while hundreds more were locked outside.

Bo raised an open hand, as if swearing in a court of law, and told how, "speaking from my heart", he had never held any national leadership ambitions beyond his work in Chongqing.

In the next breath he pointedly revealed that China's national Gini coefficient – the sensitive worldwide inequality measure, which had not been publicly released in a decade – had risen to the alarming level of 0.46, which stood in obvious contrast to the diminishing rich–poor gap he had been boasting of in Chongqing. He brazenly suggested President Hu Jintao should come to Chongqing to personally inspect what he had achieved. Bo was tolling the bell on a social and political crisis and holding himself out as the saviour of the Communist Party, socialism and the nation.

Bo Xilai knew the Party had never had the courage to seriously apply the law to its own children. His performance was an act of defiance worthy of his father, who had been gaoled by the Kuomintang and "knocked down" twice by his comrades-in-arms and still returned to power and outlived them all.

The lesson Bo Xilai learned from his father's bruising career – as victim and then aggressor – was that it was always the reformers who were torn down, while those on the left were forgiven for the sorts of honest mistakes that revolutionaries make.

"If a new capitalist class is created, then we'll really have turned onto a wrong road," warned Bo Xilai, rising to the climax of his final press conference and echoing the "capitalist roader" accusation that had once been made against his father. He even recited a popular Mao-era poem: "Dare to fight for the high ground with these devils; Never give an inch to the overlords."

"Destroy me if you dare," he seemed to be saying to his leadership peers, who were no doubt watching every word. He was calculating that those loyal to the memory of Hu Yaobang would not challenge the 25-year ascendancy of conservative political ideology. The stage was set for Vice President Xi Jinping to take the upper hand in his family's six-decade tussle with the House of Bo.

A Dynastic Succession

Bo Xilai publicly railed against "capitalists" and "overlords" but in private he was more willing than any of his peers to deal with them. Almost exactly one year earlier, in the days following the 2011 National People's Congress, the US ambassador Jon Huntsman was making his final calls before returning home to run for the Republican presidential nomination. Tensions were high between the world's only superpower and its sole credible challenger.

The next American presidency would be focused on restoring fiscal stability and steering the United States through a crisis of confidence. China's new leadership team, to be selected around Xi Jinping at the 18th Communist Party Congress immediately after the American presidential election, would face an even more daunting task. China's success in steering most of its 1.3 billion people out of poverty and towards modernity seemed to be creating more problems than it was alleviating.

The Party was leaning more heavily on its monopoly on violence to increase its control over a better-informed and more assertive citizenry, as it was losing its monopoly on truth. The incoming leaders would need to defend the sixty-year-old communist dictatorship against a democratic tide that was rising inside and outside China.

Bo Xilai had already demonstrated that he understood, better than anybody else, how China was entering a new world of political contestation, where leaders were no longer anointed by the heroes of the communist revolution.iv The leaders who followed Hu Jintao, whose decade as general secretary would expire at the Party's 18th Congress, would need to convince their peers that they were best able to look after their personal interests and maintain their collective rule over an increasingly engaged and globalised population. The Communist Party was drifting into an era of quasi-democratic internal struggle but it lacked any of the democratic ground rules or institutions that had developed over centuries in the West to mediate the game.

Huntsman, the popular former Governor of Utah, had been an impressive emissary but he had been stepping up his advocacy for political reform and human rights as he prepared for his re-entry into American politics. In March 2011, he was under fire in some sections of the Chinese state media for allegedly encouraging a Tunisian-style 'Jasmine Revolution', because he had turned up with his family to observe an advertised anti-government protest in downtown Beijing. Any protestors who were there that Sunday outside the McDonald's at Wangfujing, Beijing's busiest shopping street, were vastly outnumbered by undercover Chinese security officials, who bustled Huntsman out of the way. From that point on, senior Chinese leaders had flatly refused to see him.

Bo, however, opened his door. Initially they discussed Bo's Chongqing economic model and potential American investment. Bo found the similarities between their ambitions and respective family dynasties at least as intriguing as the differences.

Bo Xilai and Jon Huntsman are uncommonly capable, confident and handsome. They had learned each other's languages at times when it was unfashionable to do so, Bo as a junior high student before the Cultural Revolution and Huntsman as a Mormon missionary. Huntsman is the son of a billionaire industrialist who made his fortune manufacturing clamshell packaging for Big Mac hamburgers. Bo's father, Bo Yibo, emerged from his Cultural Revolution purgatory to regain his position as vice premier and take his place as one of the 'Eight Immortals' of the communist revolution: the group of Mao's close comrades-in-arms led by Deng Xiaoping, who emerged ascendant after Mao's death and oversaw China's opening to the world. And they were each leveraging their inherited privileges to take them towards the political apex of their respective systems.

Bo Xilai is known in China as a 'princeling', or more literally a member of the 'crown prince party', a term that encapsulates the ancient dynastic-communist amalgam he was born into. It was coined in the Hong Kong media in the 1980s to describe the hundreds of children of senior Communist Party leaders who enjoyed an inside track to money, power and great privilege. Princelings themselves, however, detest the label. The progeny of the most exclusive group of founding fathers, like Bo Yibo and Xi Zhongxun, prefer more revolutionary labels like 'red successor'. In the Chinese mutation of communism, Bo was as entitled to inherit his father's political power as Huntsman was to receive his father's money.

A few days after their Beijing meeting, on 21 March 2011, Huntsman flew with his wife, Mary Kaye, to Chongqing to resume the conversation at Bo's elegant, expansive and colonial-style government guesthouse. High walls and luxuriant gardens allowed for intimate conversation away from the construction noise of this major city in Southwest China, whose economy was growing at an average annual rate of 16 per cent.

Bo Xilai was at his charming and charismatic best. After running through investment opportunities, Bo beckoned the Huntsmans into his private office. The Americans found it reassuring to see the pictures on the office walls presented a history of Bo's photogenic family, rather than the usual trophy shots next to grim-faced Communist Party luminaries. Bo had always been fascinated with photographs of faces, especially his own. 'On some levels they reflect the peoples' innermost worlds, including their thoughts, qualities, and personalities,' he had once written, in a love letter while courting his first wife.

Bo carefully walked the Huntsmans through his family's central role in the Communist Party's story, starting with the 1920s, and explained the significance of some of the photographs. There were pictures of his parents together; his mother with Chairman Mao; himself with the master statesman Premier Zhou Enlai; and his father with what was described as the Deng-era reform team, including a very youthful Hu Jintao. Bo spoke passionately and lovingly about his family's contributions, and he did not evade their hardships. The familiarity of family papered over an otherwise incomprehensible gulf between the secure comforts of the American moneyed elite and the untrammelled power and physical insecurities of China's founding families. The dynastic feuds, between families and within them, and China's sheer political brutality were kept from view.

Bo Xilai is taller than his six siblings, at six foot one, and he appeared younger than his sixty-one years. He has the master politician's gift for reading people and engaging, no matter the class or cultural distance between them. His demeanour can be dignified, with earnest eyes and thin-rimmed reading spectacles, and he possesses a dimpled smile that can light up a room. There is no hint from Bo's appearance that he spent his first five years of adulthood in what was effectively a torture and brainwashing camp. The standard official portrait of Bo's deceased father, Bo Yibo, shows him with a grandfatherly smile and disarming cotton-tufted eyebrows, wearing a Mao jacket buttoned up to the collar. Bo Yibo's earliest memory was of watching his mother give birth to his baby brother only to have to drown him shortly afterwards because there was not enough food to share around. In the civil war, Bo Yibo spent five years in a Kuomintang gaol and then most of Mao's ten-year Cultural Revolution in purgatory.

Jon Huntsman saw the passion, inquiring intellect and raw charisma that were making Bo Xilai the emerging force in Chinese politics. He didn't see any hint of the Maoist thinking that Bo's enemies and some of his supporters were mobilising against at that very point in time. Mao had simply caused the family too much suffering, thought Huntsman. Members of the Bo clan, however, remained steadfastly loyal to both Mao and the political system that enabled him to happen. 'Chairman Mao is the greatest leader and mentor in the heart of my father,' Bo's younger brother, Bo Xicheng, said after the patriarch's passing in 2007. 'Without Mao, where would we be?'

Bo Xilai's wife, Gu Kailai, who is nine years his junior,vi played an intimate role in Bo's inner court but was battling depression and paranoia and had withdrawn from public life. Photographs showed her with prominent cheekbones, a small shapely mouth and hair fashionably cut and loosely parted down the middle. She was a successful lawyer who spoke glowingly of the efficiency of the Chinese criminal justice system compared with its procedurally tedious and sometimes 'absurd' American counterpart. 'We don't quibble with words,' she wrote in a 1998 book about her own legal exploits. 'We have a principle called “based on the facts”. As long as we know you killed someone, you will be arrested, sentenced and executed.' Her father, a powerful general in his own right, had been imprisoned by his own Party for a dozen years when she was three years old, again for imagined political misdemeanours.

Bo and Gu's beloved son, Bo Guagua, like his parents, had long ignored the Communist Party convention of public humility and total personal secrecy. He keeps impeccably manicured and wears braces, waistcoats and slim-fitting shirts. US infringement records show he drove a brand-new black Porsche Panamera around Harvard University, where he was studying for a Masters in public policy, and friends say he has driven them around Beijing in a red sports car. He played polo, appeared on Chinese chat shows and brought his friend Jackie Chan to speak at Oxford, and even sang with him on stage. His earnest charm, engaging mind and capacity for fun made him the centre of a web of friendships that stretched across three continents – although some found him narcissistic. Friends posted pictures of him wearing glossy red lipstick and partying at Oxford with his shirt off, displaying a physique that might make an Olympic gymnast proud. When he was 'rusticated', for being a wayward student, three officials from the Chinese embassy turned up to see what could be done. Bo Guagua became involved in various ventures, which he says did not involve any profit motive.

Bo Guagua staunchly defended the Communist party and was not the most excessive of China's 'Politbrats'. His father's neo-Maoist supporters were content to look the other way. Guagua's mother calls him 'Little Rabbit', for his birth year in the Chinese zodiac. He called her 'Big Rabbit' in return.vii When the Huntsmans stepped further into Bo Xilai's private Chongqing office, they were surprised to find 24-year-old Bo Guagua, China's most eligible bachelor, seated in the corner and waiting for an introduction. He looks almost exactly as his father did at the same age. According to a source who was in the room, after talking about Guagua's studies in the US, Bo Xilai turned to his guests and asked, 'I believe you have daughters about the same age?' Mary Kaye wrote down the email address of their daughters, according to a second source who was present. Bo Guagua provided his email in return. A month later, Bo Guagua and Mary Anne Huntsman met with friends at the classy Nobu Japanese restaurant in Beijing and later proceeded to drinks at an exclusive bar. There are conflicting accounts of how, exactly, the evening panned out,viii but it's clear that the junior Bo was eager to impress. The intriguing and subversive possibility of a dynastic family alliance between the United States and China did not last long.

One year later, when Jon Huntsman failed to gain the support he needed to stay in the presidential nomination race, Mary Anne and her sisters signed off on their @Jon2012girls Twitter campaign with a promise of more to come: 'Many flames burn out in politics, our dad's has just been ignited. What an incredible journey for our family. Thanks for all the support!'

The losers in Chinese politics, however, do not fall so gently. The Bo family entered 2012 insulated from law and public scrutiny, but now it is subject to the whims of Communist Party justice. Bo Xilai is in the process of being purged, without access to lawyers or friends or any hope of a transparent trial. Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, is languishing in a gaol as a common criminal, after being convicted of murdering one of her son's important English patrons. The case against her was 'irrefutable', said the official Xinhua News Agency, before the trial began. And Bo Guagua is marooned in the US, apparently studying to enter law school, and pondering the family's proven capacity for political resurrection.

The purge of Bo Xilai has been so far mild compared with the days when political rivals were tortured, exploded in plane crashes or imprisoned and left to die in their own vomit. The novelty of this one is that it is being acted out in the midst of China's information revolution and in front of an increasingly prosperous, educated and sceptical population. The political explosion of Bo Xilai is blowing open the black box of Chinese politics and laying bare a world of staggering brutality, corruption, hypocrisy and fragility. For the first time, the webs of power and money that bind and also divide China's red aristocracy are being exposed for the world to see. The demise of Bo Xilai has opened cleavages in the Party along factional, ideological and personal lines. The battle over how to frame his legacy has become a proxy war for China's future. The scars that are opening up date back to the Cultural Revolution, when Bo Xilai and his colleagues were coming of age.

This is an edited extract from The Rise and Fall of the house of Bo by John Garnaut, published by as an e-book by Penguin Special.

John Garnaut is Fairfax's China correspondent.

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