Report — From the March 2013 issue

The Unraveling of Bo Xilai

China loses a populist star

( 3 of 9 )

There are two big political meetings in China: those of the National People’s Congress, held annually, usually in March, and the National Congress of the Communist Party, held every five years, usually in October. The first is for lawmaking, the second for personnel decisions. The NPC gathering takes place in the Great Hall of the People, a titanic classical building on the west side of Tiananmen Square. Red carpets run through the hall’s entryway, up the central stairs, and into the main auditorium, where officials gather under a gigantic red star set in the ceiling and surrounded by concentric circles of gold light.

On the opening morning of the 2012 NPC, about four weeks after Wang Lijun showed up at the American consulate, I stood at the east entrance of the Great Hall, waiting for Bo Xilai. For the most part, China’s top leaders avoid the pedestrian east entrance, which faces Tiananmen Square and leaves them open to the advances of journalists. They instead file in through the north entrance, where journalists are kept at bay with red velvet. The attendees’ preference is easy to understand; journalists have turned covering the NPC into a contact sport. (Considering that newspapers typically print only what government censors allow, the journalists’ enthusiasm is less easy to understand.) Officials of any rank or interest can be literally tackled by the Chinese press corps. Those trying to escape trip and fall with alarming frequency.

Bo had a populist image to uphold. In previous years he had strutted through the east entrance, leaving himself open to the mob, handling them with a smile. He had been the star of previous NPCs, often presiding over three-hour press conferences. Now, following Wang Lijun’s flight, people were unsure whether he would even show up. I stood with a pack of Chinese journalists in front of a line of metal detectors that were constantly going off and being ignored. Delegates were streaming in, some in military uniform, a few in the full ethnic regalia of their minority regions — colorful robes and elaborate headpieces. For the most part, however, the delegates tended to look the same: hair dyed black, suits black and boxy. They showed off only with their accessories; while I was occupied searching for Bo, Chinese photographers were busy zooming in on some outlandishly expensive watches. In the end, Bo came in through neither the north nor the east entrance. Someone suggested he had been smuggled in underground. No one saw him until he was seated, yawning and scribbling on a piece of paper, in the main auditorium of the Great Hall of the People.

The NPC is an overwhelming event, for the number of delegates, the reach of the decisions made there, and for the cat-and-mouse game the organizers play with the press. The event is designed to be totally impossible to navigate.

In order not to miss the Chongqing delegation’s press conference, I took to hounding all the Chinese journalists I knew. Eventually, a few days into the meeting, one of them told me that the press conference would be held the following morning. Bo hadn’t showed up at one of the big meetings that day, and people were speculating that this absence was the first sign of his imminent demise.

By the time I got to the Great Hall on Friday morning, a mob of angry journalists had gathered at the base of a staircase leading to some of the smaller meeting rooms in the building. A row of men in black suits were letting in only people who had applied online. There had been no application form on the NPC website. I lied to get past the first set of guards, telling them I had applied, and had made it up the first flight of red-carpeted stairs when someone with a clipboard and a list stopped me. On my way back down, an overzealous foreign-ministry functionary pushed me just enough that I lost my balance and fell into the throng, resulting in a brief moment of crowd surfing. Later, someone from the foreign ministry explained the media limitations. “It’s a small room,” he said. “This is for your safety!”

The handful of journalists who were let in were unsure what had earned them the privilege, but they were charitable. A reporter for Bloomberg News was emailing notes on the meeting as it progressed:

He’s drinking tea in a navy suit with yellow tie sitting under a big red banner . . . I didn’t see it coming, Bo says of Wang. This thing came on suddenly, Bo says of Wang Lijun. . . . He also broke some economic news, check it out: China’s Gini [a coefficient that measures wealth disparity] has exceeded 0.46, Bo says. Bo says reducing wealth divide and Gini Coefficient are major tasks of Chongqing govt. “If only a few people are rich then we are capitalists, we’ve failed,’’ Bo says.

’s last article for Harper’s Magazine, “The World, Shanghaied,” appeared in the October 2010 issue.

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