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The New Chinese Gang of Seven

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AFP/Getty Images
A woman carrying a portrait of Bo Xilai after a Red Culture gathering where workers sang revolutionary songs, Chongqing, June 2011

Bo also beautified Chongqing by planting trees and banning many billboards, and he made police more accessible. Again liberals recoiled, but when a friend of mine traveled to the region during Bo’s heyday a couple of years ago, he found that many people supported Bo for having reasserted control over an anarchic city.

Most controversial was his attack on the city’s notorious mafia. He brought in a brutal law enforcement official, Wang Lijun, who had served Bo in previous stints, and let him run wild. Wang used gang-style methods—torture, blackmail, and kidnapping—against the mafia. He broke the big crime bosses, often in theatrical style, in one case dragging a mafia lawyer back to Chongqing and greeting him on the airport tarmac, backlit by the flashing lights of police cars. “Li Zhuang, we meet again!” he is reported to have said.

That anecdote is related in Australian reporter John Garnaut’s brief but illuminating e-book, The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo, which describes Bo’s career in about 28,000 words. Garnaut has made a name for himself by reporting on the princeling faction in Chinese politics with articles appearing in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and Foreign Policy. As in any instant book, the writing feels a bit rushed, and because it’s still unfolding, the story is not complete. But it’s by far the most carefully researched and sober analysis of a scandal that has fascinated the world as few other Chinese political stories have done.

One of Garnaut’s chief accomplishments is to put the death of the British businessman Neil Heywood in perspective. Until now, foreign media have been jousting to report the latest tidbits that they’ve squeezed from Heywood’s friends, colleagues, and the British diplomats who handled the case. As Garnaut’s book shows, this attention is misplaced.

Heywood had been a low-level British middleman in Beijing who had gotten to know the Bo family and tried to parlay that into a job as a door-opener. For reasons still unclear, Bo’s wife, the lawyer Gu Kailai, asked him to visit Chongqing last November and had him murdered in a grisly fashion—by most accounts getting the teetotaler drunk and then pouring a cyanide mixture down his throat after he’d vomited and asked for water.

No one has explained why she did this, except that she was becoming unhinged and, rightly or wrongly, felt that Heywood was a threat to her son. The two possibly had a dispute over a real estate transaction. Heywood had asked for money and she decided to do him in. This is the gist of the official story issued at her murder trial, which took place in August, and Garnaut is convincing when he says that we may never know more than this.

In any case, the details are largely irrelevant now because Heywood was essentially the cudgel used to kill Bo. While a murder weapon is important it’s usually more relevant to look at who acted and why.

At first, no one knew Heywood had been murdered. Wang, Bo’s loyal cop, hushed it up but kept a recording of Gu talking about the murder and allegedly a blood sample showing the cyanide. The reason he kept the evidence is that, according to Garnaut’s persuasive analysis, Wang knew that anticorruption investigators from Beijing were on his trail and he wanted to have something in case Bo tried to dump him. The investigators were headed by one of Bo’s predecessors in Chongqing who had had a close relationship with one of the crime bosses Bo had had tried and executed. The investigator wanted revenge and went after Bo through Wang, digging through his past dealings in a northeastern city where Wang had served. In essence, the flamboyant Bo had made one too many enemies and now they were circling.

When the investigators got close, Wang went to Bo earlier this year seeking help. Bo declined and, in February, Wang took the evidence to the US consulate in nearby Chengdu, knowing that it was the only way to make sure the evidence was not destroyed. If he’d stayed in Chongqing, Wang reasoned, Bo would have had him murdered. So he made sure he attracted national attention, hoping he would be arrested by national state security and taken to Beijing for interrogation—which is exactly what happened.

In this much more logical way of looking at things, Heywood was an unlucky person but not particularly relevant. He was an ideal case for Wang to make public because corruption—which Wang undoubtedly could have proven of Bo—is endemic among senior leaders and might not have ensured Bo’s fall. Plus, the fact that Heywood was a foreigner was a bonus, making it an international incident and harder to hush up. And indeed after the story was broken by a Shanghai intellectual, who put the information on his microblog, the Western media jumped on the story, with first Reuters and then The Wall Street Journal reporting the shocking news.

The problem with focusing on Heywood—what suits he wore, where he worked, what cars he drove, whether he’d met members of the British intelligence service MI6—is that none of it matters to the real story, which was the efforts to take down Bo. Heywood’s death didn’t cause the scandal; he was dead and cremated months before Wang decided to use his case to get at his boss. Of course, the corruption investigators couldn’t have known that Bo would fall in such a spectacular fashion, but the result was the same: Bo was out of the game. If Heywood hadn’t been around, it’s reasonable to assume that Wang would have found another way to take down his boss.

One has to ask oneself if any of this matters. Bo was a Politburo member but a long shot for the Standing Committee, the seven-member body that runs China. No one who behaved like Bo—courting the media, boasting of his accomplishments, initiating national projects like the Red songs and violent anticorruption campaign—can be seen as a serious contender for the very top. Instead, Bo’s were clearly last-ditch efforts to reverse his downward trajectory.

But the case does matter on several levels. For one, although China’s top leaders are probably not as dysfunctional, craven, and vile as the Bo family, the story of Bo opens a window into how politics are played out at China’s elite levels. As investigations by Bloomberg into Xi’s family and by The New York Times into outgoing premier Wen Jiabao’s family have shown, checks and balances are almost null for the families of senior leaders, allowing at least the family members to acquire vast fortunes.5 Murder doesn’t seem far-fetched in a system where leaders, especially in a remote province like Chongqing, control all the levers of power and can easily cover up crimes.

More directly, Bo’s implosion may have set the way for a more conservative group of leaders than previously expected. At this point it’s hard to know the dynamics of the past six months but it’s clear that Hu’s faction has been weakened by the pyrotechnics, possibly because one of his closest associates became enmeshed in efforts to deal with Wang after police had escorted him back to Beijing.

What is clear is that by the summer, Hu was fighting off his longtime nemesis and predecessor, Jiang, now eighty-six, who had been ill but suddenly had recovered. By the early autumn, it appeared that a consensus had formed to cut the Standing Committee to seven members from nine, a move that forced off two of Hu’s favorites. That decision held, and a seven-man Standing Committee was announced on November 15, exactly one year after Neil Heywood was reported dead in Chongqing.

The new leaders have many things in common. All are tried-and-true, low-key Party veterans who had pushed for fast economic growth, but exclusively inside the parameters of a dominant state with strong political control. None is particularly known for innovative ideas or thinking; for better or worse, there’s no Bo Xilai among them. That is arguably a result of the Bo scandal; the lesson is to pick even safer people for the top.

Another is age. Xi is fifty-nine and Li is fifty-seven but the rest are near retirees. Wang Qishan, an economics expert and the new head of anticorruption efforts, is sixty-four. Zhang Dejiang, a Jiang man and widely viewed as particularly concerned with control of the bureaucracy, is sixty-six. Shanghai boss Yu Zhengsheng, a princeling whose ancestors served the Qing court, the Republican government, and Mao, is sixty-seven. Propaganda chief Liu Yunshan (the only clear Hu protégé) is sixty-five. Finally, another Jiang man, Tianjin Party chief Zhang Gaoli, is sixty-five.

Left off of the Standing Committee was Wang Yang, the fifty-seven-year-old blunt-spoken Party secretary of Guangdong. Although his reformist credentials may be overplayed, he was one of the best hopes that reformers had.

One effect of leaving off younger leaders may be to damage longer-term stability. Part of the effort to institutionalize politics in post-strongman China is that leaders are, in theory, not supposed to take a post if they’re older than sixty-five. If this is true, then already at the nineteenth Party Congress, five of the seven members will retire, with only Xi and Li certain to remain. That could make it harder to build continuity and choose a successor, who is supposed to be anointed in five years.

As for what the new government will do, Li could be sympathetic to reforming state enterprises. Earlier this year, he signed off on a World Bank report that called for curbing their powers and freeing up private enterprise. This will be difficult given that many of the country’s largest state enterprises are powerful monopolies with tight ties to the Politburo and the security apparatus—the outgoing security czar, Zhou Yongkang, for example, had played an important part in the oil industry and in suppressing Uighur activists in western Xinjiang province. But Li is one of the country’s best-educated leaders in recent history and as a graduate student he even translated into Chinese The Due Process of Law by Lord Denning, one of the twentieth century’s most famous judges. When Li visited England a few years ago, he gave a speech at the Old Bailey courthouses, where Lord Denning had served.

Xi could also use his new corruption fighter, Wang Qishan, to launch a Party “rectification” campaign. Pitched as a big anticorruption drive, it would be popular and echo some of Bo’s efforts. It would also allow Xi to assert control over the Party. Xi hinted as much at his address to the nation on November 15, saying that some members of the Party were corrupt and misused power.

But this would have a ritualized feel to it as well. For decades, the Party has been fighting corruption through spectacles, sacrifices, and ceremonies: making arrests, exposing a Politburo member or two, and then announcing that all is well. The problem is that unlike the ceremony anointing Xi as the new leader, these policy-driven rituals truly are empty.

Another challenge facing the Party was the men on stage with Hu when he played his last role. Just as Hu had Jiang looking over his shoulder for his decade in office, Xi will have Hu, who at sixty-nine is seven years younger than Jiang when he stepped down. By some counts, Xi will have twenty current and former Standing Committee members to assuage, coddle, and battle. This combination may make it hard for Xi to do much of anything other than keep the flame burning.

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    In the interests of disclosure, I also write for The New York Times but did not participate in the article on Wen. 

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