A Chinese Murder Mystery?

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Jason Lee/Reuters
Bo Xilai during the opening ceremony of a concert of revolutionary songs, Chongqing, China, June 29, 2011

Roughly every decade, China’s political system cracks, its veil is rent, and its inner workings are laid bare. 2012, the Year of the Dragon, is turning out to be one of those periods when the country’s high priests can’t quite carry out their rituals as planned.

The disruption to China’s well-ordered political world was set off by the upcoming 18th Party Congress, when the current leaders, General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, retire and are to be replaced by Xi Jinping as head of state and the Party and Li Keqiang as premier. This will mark just the fourth handover of power since Mao Zedong seized control in 1949 and the second time in a row that it will have occurred—so far at least—peacefully.1

On the surface, the problem is simple: these top leaders discovered in February that they had a murderer in their midst. That person was Bo Xilai, a former Politburo member and Party secretary of Chongqing, whose wife, the lawyer Gu Kailai, is accused of being responsible for the killing of an Englishman, the financial consultant Neil Heywood, who was rumored, without evidence, to have helped the Bo family and others to send money out of China. He died on November 14, and it has been speculated that he had gone to Chongqing to celebrate Gu’s birthday on the following day. Just why and how he died remains a mystery, but according to the still-sketchy story,2 Bo helped his wife cover up Heywood’s murder, making him an accomplice.

Some of the official story was reassuringly familiar: Bo is a bad apple, the kind of person that every political system in the world can produce—a politician who misused his office to save a family member from the law. But this version has one major hole: Bo’s misdeeds only came out after his police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to a US consulate in February and told American diplomats that Bo had done something seriously wrong—in other words, it’s not as if the Party figured this out on its own. But once the story was out, the Party quickly removed Bo and admitted he’d engaged in bad behavior. Bo and his wife face prosecution in connection with the murder and will be punished in accordance with the law. End of story.

And yet it’s a narrative that few Chinese believe is so simple. Bo represented the Party’s left wing, which is skeptical of some of China’s reforms and wants vigorous action to counter the enormous, growing gap between rich and poor. Xi Jinping, by contrast, represents middle-of-the-road reformers who acknowledge that problems exist but offer vague, gradual solutions.

Extremely ambitious, Bo was already in the Party’s twenty-five-member Politburo and aspired to join Xi in its even more exclusive nine-member …

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  1. 1

    The takeover by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 was accompanied by a mini-coup in which Mao’s followers were arrested and tried. Jiang Zemin’s ascension in 1989 followed the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests and subsequent ouster of Party leader Zhao Ziyang. Jiang left on schedule in 2002, handing over to Hu and Wen. 

  2. 2

    A formal statement regarding Bo’s involvement—perhaps some sort of verdict—is expected in the coming weeks.