Perspective — February 22, 2013, 9:00 am

On the Great Wall Game

Behind the scenes of recent scandals, Chinese government factions vie for influence

Bo Xilai. ©© Abode of Chaos

Bo Xilai. ©© Abode of Chaos (Flickr)

About a year ago, at nearly the same moment that Bo Xilai was being stripped of his position as Communist Party Secretary of Chongqing, a Ferrari crashed in Beijing. China is probably the world’s leader in luxury-vehicle crashes — earlier this year, someone in Guangzhou became the first person in the world to crash a Ferrari F12berlinetta. But this particular wreck warranted more scrutiny than others.

Photos of the crash soon appeared on China’s microblogging platform Sina Weibo, showing a black Ferrari 458 Spider that had been going so fast that, after ricocheting off a wall and striking a railing under Beijing’s Baofusi bridge, it split in half, killing its driver and seriously injuring two Tibetan women who were, according to rumor, naked in the backseat. Right after the wreck, censors began cracking down on online speculation about the driver’s identity. As Sina Weibo users tried to spread the photo of the wrecked car and offer theories on the identity of the driver, the word “Ferrari” was blocked, and posts mentioning the accident started to disappear. Before it took effect, some were suggesting that the driver was Ling Gu, the twenty-three-year-old son of Ling Jihua, President Hu Jintao’s chief of staff. But then a message appeared on Ling’s microblog telling everyone that he was fine, so the rumors settled on the son of another higher-up, Jia Qinglin, a member of China’s top governing body, the Standing Committee of the Politburo, who has a close relationship with former Chinese president Jiang Zemin.

The Ferrari crash and subsequent cover-up were related to Bo Xilai’s demise for reasons that went beyond just timing. Both incidents threw a spotlight on divisions in the Chinese Communist Party. Both had roots in internal party conflicts that began in the 1980s and survived the “Beijing Consensus,” a model of economic development that required a united front from party members. And both took place in a new and unfamiliar context for China’s leaders — they were among the most significant political scandals to have taken place since the onset of China’s information revolution. 

To understand the threads uniting Bo and the crash, it’s useful to go back ten years, to the moment Hu Jintao took over from Jiang. Although Hu became the formal head of the party, Jiang maneuvered to remain chief of the military for another two years. Factions were understood to be lining up behind each man. Bo Xilai and his fellow princeling Xi Jinping were in Jiang’s camp.  

The two likeliest drivers of the crashed Ferrari were therefore from different factions, and both sides worked hard to control the available information. The blog post from Ling Gu turned out to have been penned after his death in the crash, possibly by his own father, in an attempt to displace public scrutiny. The cover-up continued until last September, when a group of party elders, led by Jiang, confronted Hu about the role his chief of staff had played in hiding the truth about his son’s death. But Jiang had held onto this information until months after the crash, at a moment when Hu was politically vulnerable. Ultimately, Ling Jihua lost his position in November and, with Hu Jintao weakened by the scandal, incoming Chinese leader Xi Jinping, a Jiang protégé, took the opportunity to consolidate his power on the way in.

The information and speculation surrounding the Bo Xilai case might prove more difficult for Xi to manipulate for political gain, however. The party has been slow to close the door on the scandal, and Bo has yet to go to trial. During his time as secretary of Chongqing, Bo built a large enough security apparatus that he is capable of implicating other members of the party elite in corruption if he’s feeling uncooperative (as appears to be the case). Rumors last month that his trial would take place in the city of Guiyang ended with a pack of journalists sitting outside a closed courthouse. The proceedings are now said to be scheduled for late March, after this year’s National People’s Congress.

Share
Single Page
wrote “The Unraveling of Bo Xilai: China loses a populist star” for the March 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

More from Lauren Hilgers:

From the March 2013 issue

The Unraveling of Bo Xilai

China loses a populist star

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2016

The Trouble with Iowa

The Queen and I

Disunified Front

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

We Don’t Have Rights, But We Are Alive

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Isn’t It Romantic?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trusted Traveler

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Isn’t It Romantic?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He had paid for much of her schooling, something he cannot help but mention, since the aftermath of any failed relationship brings an ungenerous and impossible impulse to claw back one’s misspent resources.”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Trouble with Iowa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It seems to defy reason that this anachronistic farm state — a demographic outlier, with no major cities and just 3 million people, nine out of ten of them white — should play such an outsized role in American politics.”
Photograph (detail) © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Article
Rule, Britannica·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is the strange magic of an arrangement of all the world’s knowledge in alphabetical order: any search for anything passes through things that have nothing in common with it but an initial letter.”
Artwork by Brian Dettmer. Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W., New York City.
Article
The Queen and I·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Buckingham Palace is a theater in need of renovation. There is something pathetic about a fiercely vacuumed throne room. The plants are tired. Plastic is nailed to walls and mirrors. The ballroom is set for a ghostly banquet. Everyone is whispering, for we are in a mad kind of church. A child weeps.”
Photograph (detail) © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Article
We Don’t Have Rights, But We Are Alive·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If I really wanted to learn about the Islamic State, Hassan told me, I ought to speak to his friend Samir, a young gay soldier in the Syrian Army who’d been fighting jihadis intermittently for the past four years.”
Photograph (detail) by Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty

Amount by which the number of government jobs in the U.S. exceeds the number of manufacturing jobs:

5,129,000

The sound of mice being clicked may induce seizures in house cats.

In Turlock, California, nearly 3,500 samples of bull semen were stolen from the back of a truck.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Two Christmas Mornings of the Great War

By

Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.

Subscribe Today